Filming at Lake Baikal for Swiss TV
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
Filming Empire Builders in Russia
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.
Media and Propaganda for Austrian TV
In October we helped a journalist from Austria’s main TV broadcaster with a project he was working on titled ‘Media and Propaganda’. How different news agencies tell the same story with a focus on international news coverage of events in Ukraine.
We got two interviews at RT (Russia Today). One with RT’s senior political correspondent, Anissa Naouai who has won a Silver World Medal in the Best News Anchor category for her nightly news magazine ‘In the Now’, and another with Ilya Petrenko about his reportage in Ukraine. We then headed to Sputnik, a relatively new agency aimed at foreign audiences to get another point of view.
We also had time to look into Putinversteher (a German word meaning a Putin sympathiser) which is a fashion brand with clothing featuring the face of the Russian president. Their best selling item is a silver ring with the presidents face.
The Bolshoi in Brazil
In the beginning of July we had the pleasure of working with a Brazilian production company filming a special TV show called “City of Dance” for RBS to broadcast across Santa Catarina.
For 33 years Joinville in Brazil has held a Dance festival and is included in the Guinness World Records for the largest student dance festival with around 6 thousand participants.
This program focusses on the special relationship the Bolshoi Theatre has with Joinville. Here there is the only Bolshoi Theatre School outside of Russia and they are celebrating their 15 year anniversary of starting the School there after a tour of Brazil in the early 90s.
“Even if my participation in launching the Joinville School of Bolshoi would be my only achievement as a dancer, an artist and a poet – I would be able to say that my life is not in vain”
We took care of the pre-production and setting up permits for filming on the streets of Moscow as well as providing an assistant producer to accompany the crew while filming in the Bolshoi Theatre and around the city.
Rafael Custodio, the presenter interviewed two famous ballet dancers Aleksandr Vetrov and Vladimir “God of Dance” Vasiliev as well as other key members of the Bolshoi team.
City of Dance will be broadcast on the 25th Aug on RBS.
Hair Piece with Victoria Melody
This spring we had the pleasure of working with Victoria Melody, a visual and performance artist from the UK, filming a documentary about the production of hair extensions.
When she was taking part in a beauty contest in Brighton for her project ‘Major Tom’ which premiered in 2013 she had hair extensions which made her ask questions about where the hair had come from. These questions sparked the beginning of her next theatre project that took her to India and Russia in an attempt to trace the hair used in her extensions back to the person who grew it.
We spent months researching the questions: where do Russian women sell their hair, how do hair dealers find these women, how much do they buy hair for?
We found that the majority of hair dealers are not open to speaking about their business, and even the salons who buy real hair refused to talk about this as soon as they understood we were going to make a film about this subject.
We visited a unique hair factory in Mosalsk, that produces around 1,5 tons of hair every month. Their dealer collects hair from all over Russia and brings it to the factory for processing. But again he decided to stay away from filming and didn’t want to reveal his identity. So much mystery in this hair business…
We did find one hair dealer from Volgograd who turned out to be interested in our film and agreed to show us this world of the Russian hair business. We were really surprised to discover hair harvesting events still take place. In Volgograd , for example, they take place every Friday in a shopping centre where people come and bring hair that they want to sell. One old lady brought her hair that she had been keeping for years and after having seen the advert on the bus stop “WE BUY HAIR” decided to sell it and buy a gift for her grandson, another young lady got bored of her long hair and wanted to get it cut right there for a small amount of money.
After Volgograd we travelled to a very small town of Borisoglebsk where we met a young lady who wanted to sell her waist length hair because she wanted a change. Although she was a little concerned about the outcome having had grown her hair for the past 9 years, in the end she was really pleased with her new haircut as well as with the amount of money she was paid by the hair dealer. It was lovely to share with her the excitement of this big change and follow her to the hairdresser for this film.
What became of the Russian Collective Farms
We ventured 120km from Moscow to Obninsk to investigate what state the Russian collective farms are in now for French-German TV. With stories that a lot of the land is being rented by Chinese farmers who are putting up hundreds of green houses and polytunnel’s to mass produce vegetables for the Russian market.
We had read an article which said that the Chinese farmers are using huge amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilizers to bring on the crop faster and bigger than anything grown naturally. There are stories of them moving to different land each year leaving behind fields poisoned and unable to be farmed anymore, land that even weeds don’t grow on.
We found one of these Chinese run farms and they were very welcoming and showed us around. This group had worked the same plot of land for 5 years so maybe not all the stories we had read were true. We got some great film of their green houses and how they tend to the tomato plants.
Also for this story we looked at the local Russian population, most of them would have been farmers here 10 – 20 years ago, but now the young don’t seem to have the opportunity to work the land, either because there is not enough work or they don’t like the idea of this type of back breaking labour.
In the 3 days of filming we met one young Russian couple who have a small holding and are happy to still be working the land with their collection of young cows, goats and pigs. But this couple seem to be an exception and not typical in this region.
Architecture shoot for Deutsche Welle
We had two amazing days filming for Deutsche Welle TV‘s cultural magazine show with reporter Werner Herzog about the changing architecture of Moscow. We met with Sergey Kuznetsov, Chief architect of Moscow to talk about his new projects. One of which is Zaryadie park that is going to be built in heart of Moscow.
“It’s a place for the people. It’s not a place only for the tourists, it’s a place for Muscovites. Moscow really needs good parks and this is the last remaining, very important big plot. Not only in Moscow, but I would say in one of ten most important megapolis in the world, in a historic place. It’s a good sign for Russia” – Peter Kudryavtsev
We also filmed an interview with the director of Schusev State museum of architecture and The opening of the exhibition “Urban development: Position and Opposition”, which represents the works of graduating Russian architecture students and their vision of how to create a modern city and its space.
Filming for German TV
We have just completed filming two stories about the Russian soldiers and officers who returned from Germany in 1992-1994 with the rest of the Russian army at the end of the cold war. Some of them were given the apartments in Kubinka, in the town built with German money from June 1993 until August 1995. We met and interviewed some very interesting and very welcoming contributors who told us their memories of their time in Germany. They spoke with great fondness of the cities they were stationed and how they mixed with the local German population.
Kubinka is famous for being the best Russian pilot academy and is home to biggest tank museum in Russia, as well as being a lovely place to live surrounded by forests and close to the Moscow river. About an hours drive from Moscow we spent 3 very long but very enjoyable days filming there. All the contributors spoke about the town being a very quiet and an almost perfect place to raise a family.
We filmed the stories on a Canon C300. They will air on the German TV in August 2014.