CHUKCHI, OR NOT CHUKCHI? THAT IS THE QUESTION

AN INTERVIEW WITH LIIVO NIGLAS, CO-DIRECTOR OF “THE JOURNEY TO THE MAGGOT FEEDER”

By Shosha Adie

Liivo Niglas is a filmmaker and ethnologist who grew up near the small town of Jogeva (Estonia), against what he calls the “bizarre” political backdrop of the Soviet Union.

Though he has documented many experiences, he describes “The Journey to the Maggot Feeder” as particularly special, as it resonates with his upbringing under the restrictive USSR and with his Estonian blood – blood shared with shaman ancestors in Western Siberia.

The other element which characterises this project is that it was not his idea. The documentary is built around the charismatic Estonian animator Priit Tender, who acts as the protagonist and who began as a stranger to Niglas. Tender had first brought the ‘The Maggot Feeder’ fable to Western audiences in 2012, by animating the characters into a short film, but soon realised that those storyboards only touched the surface of the story.

The origins of this fable are in Chukotka, situated on the easternmost tip of Russia, next to the Bering Sea. It tells us about a seal hunter who lives happily on the permafrost with his wife, but then one day plots to murder her since she cannot give him a child. Whilst the wife sits at home awaiting the hunter’s return, he builds a tower and raises giant maggots inside it that he intends to feed her to.

The narrative caused confusion with audiences back home, since it did not conform to preconceptions about what a fairy tale should be, and Tender was advised to take it to psychoanalysts in London since “it is too crazy to not have a meaning”. He did this, inviting Niglas to come with him to document what these meanings were. What he did not know at that point was that this journey of discovery would have them venture all the way from Tallinn, in Estonia, to weightlifting champions in St Petersburg— before finally reaching the people of Chukotka. A feat that would take both filmmakers far from home. I asked Niglas why  he agreed to go along and, from a friend’s trailer in North Dakota where he is shooting for his next film, he told me:

“I had never been to Chukotka, but I am always ready for another adventure… especially if it involves filmmaking!”

For Niglas, the footage shown only captures the surface of his experience working with Tender, who had allowed him to see film in a way he’d “never thought to see things before”.

Despite a tough beginning, the film unfolded exactly how they’d expected, with revelations along the way, “as if in a fairy-tale”. As Niglas had predicted, the further they delved into the mystery of the Chukchi Legend, the more the story became mixed up with their reality. On asking what lasting impression he wanted his film to leave, I was told that he wants the viewers to witness how many different ways it is possible to experience a story in order to “…leave the cinema with an idea that this Chukchi fairy-tale is almost as complex as a Shakespearean play”.

JOURNEY TO THE MAGGOT FEEDER is screening at the RAI FILM FESTIVAL on Friday 31 March, 3:45 PM
Information and tickets here