It’s always been our dream to visit Lake Baikal and with Swiss TV we had the chance to see it twice this summer.
Located in South-central Siberia, not far from the Mongolian border and surrounded by mountains, forests and rivers, Lake Baikal is the oldest and deepest fresh water lake in the world and is famous for its breath taking natural beauty and wildlife.
In June we went to Ulan-Ude with Corinne Eisenring, Swiss correspondent, to film a story about a local shaman and her rite of passage. We flew to Ulan-Ude and stayed at the hotel Praga which is very close to the shamans who were happy to accept us in their big shaman family for the next 3 days.
For Buryat shamans the rite of passage lasts for 3 days during which the shaman who takes the rite of passage is helped by around 20 people. These people are mainly their relatives and other shamans who help them to go through this important event in their life.
During the whole summer shamans get into the process of the rituals, one shaman after another take the rite of passage to rise to the next level of shaman hierarchy.
The first day is devoted to preparations. We were really impressed how much care for detail is taken into consideration and how carefully they treat each step. The shamans with their families and friends decorate birch trees that they bring from the forest with red and blue ribbons and then replant them in the ground as later they will circle around the trees and get into a trance. One tree should be big and stable enough for the shaman to climb up it when they get into this trance state of mind.
The next two days while the shaman we were following was getting into a trance many times, other people were constantly singing to help her reach this state of mind. When this happens the shaman starts talking with their ancestral spirit. The tribal music stayed with us for the rest of the trip and in my memory it was the most interesting experience that we shared with this community and feel honoured to have been allowed so close to this very personal event.
After the shamans we went to scout several locations and got to see two villages not far from Ulan-Ude where old believers (followers of old Russian Orthodox traditions) live according to information we found on the Internet. Although it turned out that they were not genuine old believers but something more like a promotion for tourists. The real old believers are very close knit community and don’t often communicate with people from the outside world.
We also visited Ivolginskiy dastan which is known to be the home for the last 7 years to Dashi-Dorzho Itigelov Lama, the chief figure of Russian Buddhism before the October Revolution in 1917. After being buried for decades, his body was exhumed, only to find that there were no signs of decay at all. Now he is worshipped as a saint, 7 times a year on special days Buddhists come to see how the incorruptible body of Hambo Lama Itigilov in lotus position in the cedar casket is taken out of the temple.
In August we came back to Olchon, a place known for its shaman rock and spirituality.
This time we flew to Irkutsk. The road to Olchon takes 4-5 hours from Irkutsk to the ferry and then 40 minutes by a local car. This is where you should be ready for a very bumpy stretch of road. There is a lot of talk about road construction in this part (from ferry to Huzhir) so maybe next year it will be much better.
This time there were more tourists on the ferry and the water of Baikal seemed to have changed colour. When we were leaving this place (on the 24th of August) it felt like mid-autumn, mainly because of the strong wind and the grey colour of the lake.
The most touristic season at the lake is considered to be from 20th of June until 20th of August. Then the weather can change very suddenly and the temperature can drop up to 0, -1C in the end of August.
We had two main stories to film at the island Olchon. One was about a Buddhist who came to the island for the summer to enjoy living the simple life and to do stand-up paddling. He showed to us the beauty of Baikal from the water. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to try it overserves but we did experience that very unique and peaceful feeling of the lake that he was talking about, when we were on the boat to get the shots of a very happy Victor on water.
We went by jeep to the bay from where we could see the white silhouette of the Buddhist stupa on the island Ogoy. From there Victor and his two friends reached the island on their boards in about 30 minutes and we climbed to the highest point of the island. The Buddhist Stupa of Enlightenment was built in the summer of 2005 with the initiative of the Moscow Buddhist centre.
Besides Olchon, we experienced a wild Baikal when we went to Onguren to film the story about a priest. The way to Onguren took us the whole day. The road stretched through the massive rocks and deep roots of trees, with deep forest on one side and the lake on another side. At times the scenery reminded a dry and dusty red planet like Mars.
We made really good contacts at Olchon and it was a little bit sad to leave this beautiful, peaceful and very special place in Russia.
Tips for visiting Olchon, Baikal
- Usually there are 3 ferries that take cars and people every 20 minutes but during the hot summer season (20 June – 20 August) it becomes really busy and cars get into long queues. We didn’t experience this ourselves but we were told that if it’s so busy, it’s better to leave your car by the ferry and swap to another car on the island to avoid a long wait.
- The wind is really strong at lake Baikal and it feels colder than you expect. So a wind proof coat, warm jumper and a hat will be very welcome. Also make sure you have sun cream and cover your shoulders as you can get burnt very quickly.
- In some remote areas (like Onguren) there is no electricity. They have solar batteries and give electricity only for 5 hours a day which is sometimes not stable so better to take extra batteries with you.
- We stayed at the homestead of Nikita and found it was a perfect location (reachable from everywhere) and with their breakfasts and dinners in the canteen it was very convenient before and after the shoot.
- There are a few places in Huzhir where they make fresh coffee: Bistro at Homestead Nikita, Art café (Pushkinskaya street), and hotel Baikal view and café from their brand on the hill.
- Some areas are national parks and you need a permit to visit (a small fee you need to pay in advance). Each region has its forest district who you can apply for the permit. Or you can send your details to the touristic company in Irkutsk, for example to this: firstname.lastname@example.org
We have just finished another project with London based production company Pilot. We headed to Saint-Petersburg on Easter Day for the new TV series “Empire Builders” which looks into the achievements of mighty Empires through its iconic buildings.
Not only is this our third project with the same production company, but also with British cameraman Nigel Kinnings. We have already shot Tough Trains and Ottomans Vs Christians together and shared some adventures.
This time in Saint-Petersburg we filmed two of the most magnificent buildings, the Winter Palace and the Catherine Palace. Then we headed to Moscow where we filmed St. Basils Cathedral and The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
In Saint-Petersburg we interviewed art historian and Professor Aleksey Lepork who was a real pleasure to work with. He has so much useful knowledge and a good understating of film processes which is a great help.
We filmed in The Winter Palace on a Monday which is when the museum is closed to the public. This gave us a very unique opportunity to use the space without the rush of tourists. We had this experience last summer when filming “Ottomans Vs Christians”, trying to capture the atmosphere of these majestic rooms with crowds of tourists passing through is hard work. Keeping them back to get a shot is often impossible, so to shoot there when it is just the crew, a few members of staff and some cleaners is a pleasure like no other. It’s a strange feeling to walk through these sumptuous imperial hallways alone, you can almost capture the emotion of what it must have been like when they were the homes of the Russian Emperors.
Our favourite team member in Saint-Petersburg Igor assisted us with moving equipment because in the Hermitage/Winter Palace they don’t let crews use their trolleys. The space is so vast to move from one room to another with a lot of equipment it can be very challenging. So having another good pair of hands made it really quick and convenient.
4 hours by Sapsan train brought us back to Moscow quick and easy to shoot the Cathedrals, then a morning of B Roll of the Kremlin and the cameraman and director were on a flight back to the UK.
2016 turned out to be quite an unusual year all in all, not only in world news but closer to home. We did though find out what makes Russians laugh with Canadian comedian François Bellefeuille and met the Russian YouTuber who turned his kitchen into a swimming pool. Also we got to travel more and discovered some new great places as well as visited some old favourites.
This year we worked closer with our friends at the Golden Apple Boutique Hotel in Moscow and produced videos for their website. We also met some wonderful new people and provided full production for their projects. One of which was a creative project for the Ministery of Finances to help educate people with their financial affairs including filming at the Golden Bee international graphic design exhibition.
It was a great pleasure to cooperate again with some old friends that we have previously worked with.
We wish you all a happy and prosperous New Year and we look forward to welcoming many more crews from around the world coming to film in Russia in 2017.
Russian Pool in Apartment Viral Video Interview
Some projects are weeks if not months of research and pre-production, but sometimes we get a call out of the blue and a few days later we are heading on another filming adventure.
For example we were contacted by the makers of the British TV show RudeTube, a fast paced count down of top 50 funny and bizarre viral videos on the net. It is hosted by Alex Zane and is shown on Channel 4/E4 in the UK.
Our task was to get an interview with the Russian youtuber Вечный (Vichnie) AKA Vladimir who turned his kitchen into a swimming pool, filmed it and put it on his youtube channel. A video that has almost 3 million views at the time of this post.
So we jumped in the car and headed to Tver, 162km from Moscow to film the story. In fact we filmed Вечный in the very kitchen where this viral video was originally shot. He spoke about how he got the idea and how they prepared the kitchen with plastic sheeting before flooding it.
It was a long but very enjoyable day, we shot what was needed and the next day the footage was on a hard drive heading to London by courier.
The episode of Rude Tube featuring Вечный will be shown on Channel 4/E4 sometime in 2017.
Here is Vladimir’s original video (Contains some strong language)
Building long term working relationships is at the heart of our business, so when we were contacted by a production company from the UK that we had already filmed an episode of Tough Trains with, we were over the moon.
This shoot would be a historical documentary series that would take us to St Petersburg to look into Tsar Nicholas I and the Russian Orthodox Church in the 19th century.
First day of filming was at the New Jerusalem Monastery, about 60 km from Moscow, also known as the Voskresensky (Resurrection) Monastery and identical to the Cathedral of the same name in Jerusalem. It is one of the most beautiful and unique cathedrals near Moscow and was built at the end of the 17th century.
Some parts of its territory were under reconstruction so we were unable to film the exterior in full. We applied to the Patriarchy and gained their support and permission to film inside the Monastery, which took more than a month but which was worth all the paperwork and waiting. We were guided by one of the monasteries custodians who had a great knowledge of the history of the Monastery and was interviewed by the host of the series – Julian Davison – an architect, writer and tv presenter.
That same day we headed to St Petersburg on the fast train from Leningradsky station. The shoot would then take us to the Hermitage and Winter Palace, Peter and Paul Fortress and Kronstadt. All are places in Saint-Petersburg that need filming permits and as with the Peter and Paul Fortress it was simple and quickly organised, with the Hermitage it took us quite a time to agree all the terms.
Filming in the Winter palace for TV can be challenging. You pay quite a lot of money but this doesn’t include closing the rooms you wish to film in. They are still open for the public and it is a struggle to stop them getting into shot. As this was a documentary shoot it had a small crew of just 4 of us. So knowing the distance through the many lavishly decorated halls and rooms we would have to carry a lot of equipment, we obtained the help of one of our trusted contacts in St Petersburg to be another pair of hands. He also became helpful with shepherding the tourists out of shot. But after three hours of filming in such an extraordinary place leaves you feeling more than a little awestruck.
In the Peter and Paul Fortress we filmed the cannon salute which happens every day in Saint-Petersburg at mid-day. They opened the fence for us so we could get close to the cannons just 15 minutes before it was fired, so it was an absolute shock when we heard the 3-ton cannon fire just 2 meters away.
In Kronstadt, which is about 1 -1,5 hours of drive from the city, we took a boat to the abandoned fort Alexander. They do some excursions inside the fort, but with a filming crew you need to agree with the administration in advance and pay a fee. The easiest way to get to fort Alexander by boat is to drive to Fort Konstantin.
- It is really important to find a hotel in Saint-Petersburg with a central location that have proper breakfast. The city is full of cosy bakeries but most cafes are opened from 10am. For a crew who normally have very early starts, it is almost impossible to find good breakfast en route unless you have it in your hotel.
- If you film the cannon salute at a close distance, make sure you have hearing protection with you.
- If you are going to film in Winter palace, avoid filming on Tuesday as it is considered to be one of the busiest days with tourists and groups. If possible don’t film in summer as this has the most tourists visiting.
We spent a week in July with a Canadian crew filming an episode of Rires du monde 2 (World Laughter 2) looking at what makes people laugh in different countries. Each one-hour episode examines a different country and is hosted by different popular Canadian comedians.
The Russian episode was led by François Bellefeuille, a well-known humorist in Quebec, Canada, who aimed to explore Russian humor on TV, radio, theatre and internet.
After a few weeks of pre-production we secured interviews with a number of different comedians and people in the comedy business. Including Comedy club, Comedy radio (102’5 FM), Comedy Women show and their two main comedians, Natalia Andreevna and Ekaterina Varnava. Also Bonya and Kuzmich who became famous for their music video parodies on youtube, and a fantastic clown family called SEMIANYKI.
Interestingly, the crew came with the preconception that Russians are very serious. This was proved immediately wrong as soon as they got to Gorky park and Museon to ask the main question of the show: What makes you laugh?
Here they found that actually Russians are very happy, relaxed and like to have fun. Moreover, they like to laugh at themselves, at politics and at life.
Comedy Radio was a highlight where François went live on air to discuss with the shows DJs comedy and humour in Russia.
We then headed to Saint-Petersburg to meet the clown family Semyanuki, who met the crew at the train station in costume, so our arrival turned into a huge public performance. After a fun drive to their theatre, they immediately dressed the host up as one of them. Here the host found that some Russian humor is sometimes laughter through tears.
It was a flying visit to Saint-Petersburg as we had to head back to Moscow to continue filming other planned interviews.
Another very fascinating interview was with the director of the political satire performance “BerlusPutin” which is performed only in one theatre in Moscow and is forbidden in other theatres and regions of Russia.
We look forward to seeing this show air on TV5 across all French speaking countries in 2017.
2015 has been another year of many varied and interesting projects. We traveled the road of bones, celebrated the pole of cold festival and visited IFA in Berlin, as well as got to know the Uzbekistan capital of Tashkent. With all the excitement of fighter jets, speed boats and Reindeer sledges, it was also a year of working with and meeting lots of new people and forming some close friendships.
This year we have continued to learn and develop and we had a few important lessons. How we face difficulties when they crop up in sometimes very difficult circumstances and in often harsh natural environments. We continue to enjoy the process of film production and remain passionate about film making.
Filming this year has seen us put a man into space, journey to the coldest inhabited place on earth, investigate Russian collective farming, Hair Harvesting in Russia and Media Propaganda. We also released our first in-house film “A City Like This” which we are very proud of.
We would like to thank the following companies for their co-operation in 2015: Cineflix, Pinewood Films Inc, Hoferichter & Jacobs Film, Victoria Melody, Sugar Rush Productions, ORF, Eureka Productions, Lenovo, Novation and DaCostaProduções.
So here is to more adventures in 2016 in Russia and welcoming more film crews from all corners of the world coming to film in this exciting, surprising and fascinating country.