A woman spreads white and blue cloth on a ground covered with autumn leaves. Then she lays out three round breads, three eggs, some chocolates in rustling shiny wrappers, and props up a candle. "Mother of Birth, help me," she says. "Take away my birthmarks, they make me ugly." This is the opening scene of Aleksey Fedorchenko's film Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari, an exploration of the ancient customs of Mari people and one of the most captivating female narratives in contemporary Russian cinema.
The Mari are a Finno-Ugric ethnic group that live in the eastern part of Western Russia: mainly in the Mari El Republic and around the Ural Mountains in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan. They are not an isolated minority by any means—in the 2010 Russian census, over 574,000 people said they identified as Mari—but their stories are often missing from the official narrative of Russia as a white, Slavic, and Orthodox Christian country.
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It's not the first time Fedorchenko is working with traditional religions and cultures. His critically acclaimed film Silent Souls, which was nominated for a Golden Lion for best film at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, centered around the ancient ritual of water burial of the long extinct Russian Meryan tribe. Fedorchenko bases these subtle, personal, and yet incredibly powerful stories from his frequent collaborator, the writer Denis Osokin. Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari is based on Osokin's eponymous book of novellas. The film is compiled from 23 stories of 23 women—an occasionally heartbreaking, occasionally hilarious exploration of the real-life sexuality and social behaviour, traditions and rituals still widely practiced by Mari people.
Reality and magic are closely intertwined in Mari culture: The great towering birch can jinx and forgive, bread and birds are sacrificed to the gods in sacred groves, women make love with wind, and young girls have to blow a special pipe on the top of the hill to celebrate the arrival of their first period. We talked to Fedorchenko prior to the screening of his film the Celestial Wives of Meadow Mari in London.
Broadly: What was your first encounter with Mari culture?
Aleksey Fedorchenko: I first worked with Mari culture while making the film called Shosho [in 2006]. The film in done in Mari language and could easily be called Celestial Husbands of the Meadow Mari. It's about Mari men, karts [religious leaders], and priests of the sacred groves. All the parts were played by real priests. For the complete picture these films really should be screened together.
How did you prepare for shoot the film? Did you spend a lot of time in the Mari villages?
When we were filming Shosho we lived in the village of Shorudzha, it's the main enclave of paganism in Europe. It's in Mari El, and the strongest shamans, karts, and priests live there. We stayed there for a while trying to catch spring, essential to the film. When we arrived it was minus 40 Celsius, and when we left there were fresh shoots of grass. When we came to film Celestial Wives everyone already knew us, we met the main kart of the republic and he blessed us for the filming.
Have you participated in any rituals?
Of course. The film features real rituals which are still practiced. The sacred grove with the sacrifice of geese, the wakes —we participated in all of these. They all were fascinating. It is a magic world which exists very close to us completely unnoticed. It's enough to drive a hundred kilometres—and you end up in a completely different universe. TV gives us false stereotypes, tells us that to see something different you need to travel for thousands miles. In fact, it's enough just to go to the countryside.
Are the costumes featured in the film authentic?
They are all authentic, and certain costumes are over a hundred years old.
Is Mari culture being passed on to younger generation? Is there a risk of its gradual decline?
Mari culture dates back thousands years and its thread hasn't been interrupted. The only moment when something might have been lost is a period [in the] 70 and 80s when the Soviet government was actively fighting the cult. At the moment, the interest [in] the traditional beliefs is growing. There is dual faith in Mari El, people go both to Orthodox churches and Sacred groves. Mari paganism is very tolerant; they accept everyone. A lot of people come to big public praying—up to 5,000. It's mainly older people, but there are families, younger people too. I love these big praying a lot [sic], they are like great celebrations. Paganism, however, is still exotic and not for everyone.
For the lead roles in your film you cast not just actresses, but real Mari women.
Yes, there are Russian actresses, Mari actresses and women who were not professional actresses. I put together different people but they all had to act in Mari language.
Do you think female narratives have enough presence in contemporary Russian cinema?
I don't think so, but there are different types of narratives. [The] media picks a female image which is only three to five percent from all the diversity of female beauty. My interest is more broad, I push the boundaries and show different kinds of beauty, different women. It's not very represented nowadays. Most of young actresses look really alike so for my castings I hardly ever go to agencies.
The prevailing image of Russia constructed by media is not particularly diverse: Orthodox Christian, Slavic, white. Paganism and all the diversity of religions are not very represented. What do you think of that?
The truth is that Russia is not Orthodox at all, and not quite Slavic. The territory where Slavic people live now used to belong to Finno-Ugric nations and they assimilated with Russians, so in the end it's more Finn blood rather than Slavic. The impact of Orthodox Christianity is very shallow; I think [even] for people who believe in God nowadays, it's [mainly] pagan god and pagan rituals. In fact all the Orthodox rituals are based on paganism. Easter, Christmas, communion, sacred relics—it's all very pagan and that's why [it is] loved so much.