Before the Snow

Short synopsis

Before the Snow is a documentary filmed in the West Siberian taiga. The film explores the indigenous culture of the region through stories of the dead and of ghosts, a fairy-tale, and warnings to respect the customs and not intrude on their way of life. It features three important indigenous leaders and storytellers of the Khanty and Forest-Nenets communities of Western Siberia – Josif Kechimov, Yuri Vella and Agrafena Pesikova.


Josif Kechimov tells stories of the relationships with the dead and the tragic consequences arising from encounters with the ghosts of unburied deceased relatives. These accounts take place in the shadow of oil exploitation, forced resettlements and Christian missionary work, where forest life and traditions of Khanty reindeer herders are on the decline. Yuri Vella recounts a Forest-Nenets fairytale of a campsite both abandoned and inhabited, silent and filled with voices, a place of refuge and yet a grave guarded by a threatening inhabitant. Hunter‘s stories never have a single message or meaning - Vella leaves it to the listeners to make their conclusions. Agrafena Pesikova sends a clear message to the people intruding into the spiritual life of the indigenous people: their interests and interpretations are based on Christian religion, a religion confined to permissions and restrictions and in stark contrast to the more complex religion of the indigenous people which connects everything - human action and the spiritual world. The protagonists Josif Kechimov was a Khanty reindeer herder and fisherman in the West Siberian taiga. During Soviet times he refused to be resettled from the forest to the village as the oil industry began exploiting the oil fields. He and his family moved to the land of his mother-in-law instead. Here he built log houses for winter and summer that enabled him to move between various reindeer pastures and fishing grounds. He died in 2016 aged 56 years. Yuri Vella was a Forest-Nenets hunter, reindeer herder, poet and activist who became famous for his uncompromising stance and numerous protests against the ruthless ecological destruction of his land by the oil industry. He moved with a small herd of reindeer to the forest where his family used to live to defend it against being accessed by the oil company Lukoil. Yuri Vella died in 2013 aged 65 years. Linguist Agrafena Pesikova is a Khanty linguist specialised in the Eastern Khanty language and the author of several schoolbooks and dictionaries of the endangered Surgut Chanty dialect. For decades she lead the Surgut Chanty folklore archive and has collaborated with nearly all linguists and ethnographers working in the region, such as Lennart Meri for the production of his documentary Sons of Torumin 1985.

The team

Director and producer Christian Vagt is a photographer and film maker based in Berlin. He studied film and theatre science at Freie Universität Berlin. He has documented the everyday life of squatters in former East Berlin and worked as a club photographer in Berlin's punk club SO36. In 2009, his photographs of queer punks and skinheads at the gallery of the Tallinn Art Hall in Estonia attracted attention. He has worked in New York, Bosnia, Central Asia and Siberia. In 2016, he exhibited a series of photos of Greek refugee camp Softex. Before the Snow is his first film. Producer Stephan Dudeck is an anthropologist working at the European University at Saint Petersburg, Russia and the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland. He has established close collaborations with Siberian indigenous peoples and conducted long-term anthropological fieldwork with reindeer herding communities. Since 1993, he has regularly visited Khanty and Nenets reindeer herders living on the oil fields of Western Siberia in the Khanty-Mansi and the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Districts.

Before the Snow

with Josif Kechimov, Yuri Vella and Agrafena Pesikova
Camera, sound and editing: Christian Vagt
Unit Manager: Stephan Dudeck
Executive Producer: Stephan Kurz
Sound design and mix: Florian Holzner
Produced by Christian Vagt, Stephan Dudeck
Directed by Christian Vagt
Germany, 2007, 27 Minutes