“There are many people who don’t believe this actually happened. But it was real. There are the facts.”
What makes a good story? What combination of narrative, character and place makes a story powerful enough to last? To break out of the confines of a single creative interpretation, it must be capable of jumping from one medium to another, adapting in form whilst retaining that universal seed of magic, re-inventing itself in the hands of successive authors, creating its own mythology as it goes.
I was interested in what had happened to people living in the remote forest communities along Russia’s eastern border with China after the collapse of the Soviet Union? What happens to people when the protections of the state disappear? How do they live with no work or pension?
Looking for a commercial ‘hook’ on which to hang this somewhat abstract question, I began researching the illegal tiger trade when I came across a small but epic story.
All great stories tend to be focused on a single emotion- anger, sadness, disgust, happiness, surprise and fear. These combine in subtle ways to create a colour wheel of emotion.
The potent emotion at the heart of this story was fear. That particular fear of being hunted, a fear that still lurks deep in the recesses of our primitive imagination, buried in our pre-history when the tiger was our most feared predator, and man was easy prey. Slow, deaf, blind and foolish.
Long before the ‘blog post’ was a cultural norm, the internet was still a treasure trove of fragments of personal experience ripe for creative treatment. All one needed was a keen sense of the necessary ingredients and a focused search. A local Russian journalist had uploaded an account of a very unusual series of tiger attacks on people, written from the field notes of an eminent field ecologist, Dimitri Pikunov.
Pikunov describes a dark and disturbing series of events initiated by a desperate hunter called Vladimir Markov.
To make a mistake is only human, and we hope and expect to learn from each one. But Markov made a series of mistakes, each one compounding the next, and each steadily reducing his chances of applying the benefit of hindsight.
First he stole meat from a tiger. Then he shot at the tiger. And missed.
A wounded animal is much more dangerous, forcing ‘unnatural’ behaviours that lead inevitably to confrontation. In this case, the tiger was intent on revenge, tracing the scent of the man back to his hut where it lay patiently in wait before stalking and killing him.
Markov had triggered what was to become an infamous series of tiger attacks on people. The authorities called in specialist tiger trackers, a ‘Conflict Tiger Unit’ headed up by Yuri Trush. Yuri was charged both with investigating what had happened and with finding, and killing, the tiger.
This is Pikunov’s account of the final moments of Yuri’s deadly encounter-
“The tiger, now limping badly, wandered the logging road when, in the frosty air, came the rumble of an approaching vehicle. The predator turned off into the glade where the log deck had formerly been and lay down in a shallow ditch overgrown with wormwood. The GAS-66 truck had already made its way up to the corner of the glade.
Yuri Peonka, sitting next to the driver, saw some tracks from inside the truck that appeared to be the ones that they were looking for. Jumping out of the truck, he tested the tracks in the tried and true manner: if it ‘crumbles’, then it is absolutely fresh. Rushing to get his gun, Yuri yelled out to his partners: “He’s here!” Their dog, catching the scent of the tiger, yelped in confusion and, tucking in his tail, hid behind the truck, only sharpening even more the unbelievable tension that mortally threatened all the participants in what was now an inevitable confrontation.
A quick check of the log deck, with its occasional clumps of wormwood, yielded nothing. It was decided that Trush would be the first to go along the hot trail, to the right would be Shibnev, and a bit to the rear and to the left, Peonka. In this kind of wedge, holding their fingers on the trigger, they moved forward. In a little more than twenty meters an instantly soul-numbing roar cracked the frigid air forcing everyone, as if on command, to come to a halt.
The tiger, not more than ten meters away, flew out at them as if from under the ground from an absolutely open, clear spot.
The enormous, ferocious mass of stripes, mad from pain and enraged at people, flew like a hurricane at the first of the shooters – Trush. In a half-unconscious state, he managed to get off two shots. In a simultaneous echo, from the right and the left rang out his partners’ shots on whose accuracy Yuri’s life now depended. These two experienced hunters did not let him down and the bullets hit their mark. The enormous carcass struck the barrel of the rifle and the already lifeless mass slammed down on top of Yuri, its claws, like knives, shredding his outer, winter coat and bloodying it with hot tiger blood.
The three guys immediately composed themselves. The confrontation had taken place so quickly and so unexpectedly that no one even had time to freak. Only later, when talking about what had happened, did the three of them come to the conclusion that everything had come together all too well. And especially the fact that the confrontation had taken place on a completely open spot. What if the confrontation had occurred somewhere in the thickly wooded Bikin taiga? Most likely there would have been yet another victim. Everyone seemed to agree that Yuri Trush was born under a lucky star.”
The idea of a vengeful tiger, enraged by man’s stupidity, was lure enough for me travel to Luchegorsk, a 10-hour train journey north of Vladivostok, to meet with Yuri Trush in person. Pulling into the station on a winters night, I was greeted first by the silhouette of a small back dog, followed by the imposing figure of Yuri himself. I nervously introduced myself and explained my interest in his experience. I mentioned the idea of making a film whereupon Yuri gave a broad smile, revealing a set of sparkling gold teeth. “Sasha”, he said “I have something to show you.”
Back at his flat he sat me down in front of his old TV and inserted a VHS tape. It was only at this point that I realised that he had used a video camera to record parts of his investigation of the Markov incident and I had a film to make.
The story clearly had a universal potency, playing at film festivals around the world from Seoul in South Korea, to Goias in Brazil, winning 19 festival grand prizes and audience awards.
A year after its first release, I received a call out of the blue from the American author John Vaillant. He had seen ‘Conflict Tiger’ at the BANFF Mountain Film Festival and described a ‘light-bulb’ moment in which he realised that he had found the subject for his next book. He asked for my blessing, for some help with contacts, and, by way of thanks, sent me a copy of his previous novel in the post. ‘The Golden Spruce’ dropped through my letter-box a week later and began an extraordinary 7-year creative exchange, a subject for a separate post.
The story first made public in Dimitri Pikunov’s journal had made the leap to another medium, and was on its way to wider international exposure. 3 years later Penguin Random House published John Vaillant’s ‘The Tiger- A True Story of Vengeance & Survival’.
Here is an extract from the book that recounts the lead-up to Yuri’s brush with death-
“The sun shone brilliantly on the undisturbed snow; the only shadows there were those cast by the men themselves—long, even at midday. Gitta continued darting up the trail and then back to Trush, barking incessantly, but she gave no clear indication of the tiger’s whereabouts. She didn’t know. As they walked, the men scanned the clearing, an expanse in which it would have been difficult to conceal a rabbit, and then they focused their attention on the forest ahead, which was beginning to look like one enormous ambush. With the exception of the dog, everything was calm and nearly still. Behind them, smoke rose lazily from the Kung’s chimney, drifting off to the north. Gorborukov was still standing there by the back door, holding his rifle like a broom. In the clearing, the slender stalks and blades nodded reassuringly, as if everything was unfolding according to plan. The men had gone about twenty yards when Shibnev, picking up some kind of ineffable, intuitive cue, calmly said, “Guys, we should spread out.” A moment later, the clearing exploded. The first impact of a tiger attack does not come from the tiger itself, but from the roar, which, in addition to being loud like a jet, has an eerie capacity to fill the space around it, leaving one unsure where to look. From close range, the experience is overwhelming and has the effect of separating you from yourself, of scrambling the very neurology that is supposed to save you at times like this.
Those who have done serious tiger time—scientists and hunters— describe the tiger’s roar not as a sound so much as a full-body experience. Sober, disciplined biologists have sworn they felt the earth shake. One Russian hunter, taken by surprise, recalled thinking a dam had burst somewhere. In short, the tiger’s roar exists in the same sonic realm as a natural catastrophe; it is one of those sounds that give meaning and substance to “the fear of God.” The Udeghe, Yuri Pionka, described the roar of that tiger in the clearing as soul-rending. The literal translation from Russian is “soul tearing-apart.” “I have heard tigers in the forest,” he said, “but I never heard anything like that. It was vicious; terrifying.” What happened next transpired in less than three seconds. First, the tiger was nowhere to be seen, and then he was in the air and flying. What the tiger’s fangs do to the flesh its eyes do to the psyche, and this tiger’s eyes were fixed on Trush: he was the target and, as far as the tiger was concerned, he was as good as dead. Having launched from ten yards away, the tiger was closing at the speed of flight, his roar rumbling through Trush’s chest and skull like an avalanche. In spite of this, Trush managed to put his rifle to his shoulder, and the clearing disappeared, along with the forest behind it. All that remained in his consciousness was the black wand of his gun barrel, at the end of which was a ravening blur of yellow eyes and gleaming teeth that were growing in size by the nanosecond. Trush was squeezing the trigger, which seemed a futile gesture in the face of such ferocious intent—that barbed sledge of a paw, raised now for the death blow.
The scenario was identical: the open field; the alert, armed man; the tiger who is seen only when he chooses to be seen, erupting, apparently, from the earth itself—from nowhere at all— leaving no time and no possibility of escape. Trush was going to die exactly as Markov and Pochepnya had. This was no folktale; nonetheless, only something heroic, shamanic, magical could alter the outcome. Trush’s semiautomatic loaded with proven tiger killers was not enough. Trush was a praying man, and only God could save him now.”
It’s a strange experience to see ‘your’ story through the prism of another narrator’s imagination. John had brought new depths and insight to it with the space and time a book affords both author and reader. It’s interesting to compare how different media handle the spontaneous moment, a narrative territory that is meant to be the special preserve of the documentary film. But the written word exposes different kinds of meaning, and the experience of reading, as opposed to watching, allows us to ‘inhabit’ the story over a longer time. We become immersed in it over days, slowly losing track of where the story ends and we begin. Film is a much faster burn. But what medium has the best claim on the ‘real’? Does it matter? Working together they achieve a higher, deeper meaning, refracting different shades of emotional truth.
And so the story moves on, mutating in unpredictable ways, waiting to make the next leap in the collective imagination.
A month ago I received another note from John Vaillant. ‘Did I keep abreast of the movie news’? he asked. ‘The Tiger’ was to be adapted again, this time with big money and Hollywood production values. Ukranian Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi is to direct Emmy and Golden Globe winning actor Alexander Skarsgard.
He attached a link to an article featuring this quote from the producer Darren Aronofsky-
“As a producer, I’ve wanted to do two things for a while now: one is to make this film, and the other is to work with the brilliant auteur that is Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi. I am truly excited to be involved with a project that will allow me to do both, and cannot wait to bring this story to the world.”
Aronofsky doesn’t make boring films, and his partnership with an out-an-out ‘auteur’ (best known for his 2014 film ‘The Tribe’ set in a school for the deaf using Ukranian sign language and no subtitles) bodes well for a fresh re-interpretation rather than a dumbed down ‘Hunt For Red October’ version, with Yuri as some tooled up ‘Rambo’ hero primed to tame the wild and bring ‘civilisation’ back to the Taiga.
I pray they do the story justice, but I know it would survive even a proper mauling. Already percolating in the public imagination in multiple forms, it has already proved resilient and adaptable. We have to hope that we will fare as well as we continue to distort nature as we pursue our foolish ends.
Returning to the question of what makes a good story? A mysterious location, vivid characters and an epic battle do not alone explain its universal appeal. Its lasting impact comes more from the way it unfolds. It offers the familiar tension of a dramatic thriller pivoting our empathies from the preyed upon man to the suffering animal. But ultimately resolves as a parable, timeless and universal, that speaks emotively of their shared destiny.
Got a story to tell? Or purpose to communicate? Need some friendly advice?
Films To Believe In