Pastoralist Propaganda

Of late, I’ve been under the spell of the Mongolian film-maker Byambasuren Davaa.  She has made three movies: The Story of the Weeping Camel, The Cave of the Yellow Dog, and The Two Horses of Genghis Khan (Das Lied von den Zwei Pferden).  I’ve only seen the first two of Byambasuren’s movies, the last was not released in the US.  Her movies are a fascinating blend of fiction and documentary; the actors, humans and non-human, are themselves, they don’t even play themselves, they live their own lives but there is a movie camera and a story that they act in.  Sometimes they think of the camera for a split second, as real people would do

As their titles suggest, Byambasuren’s movies are full of animals; they are as much about the animal as the humans, as much about the landscape as the humans. It is a movie world where both animals and landscape are treated as full subjects.  Also funny, strong, wise, uncanny old women are given their proper regard. And the haunting music of Central Asia weaves sky and land, animals and humans, seen and unseen together.

The lives of the pastoralists are familiar to me in some respects and wildly alien in others. Like them, my days are filled with animals, watching them, feeding them, moving them, in bodily and mental contact.  The Story of the Weeping Camel strikes especially close to home as it is about the struggle to save a white camel calf that is rejected by its mother (Bunny!)  I picked up a bit of cross cultural practical know-how: that you can use a cow horn to nurse an orphan animal, should the situation arise where plastic nursing bottles are no longer available.  Good to know.

But the lives of the herders are much more deeply rooted than is mine.  Supporting them is a knowledge and technology base build up over hundreds of generations, a tradition of animal-handling, a religion that connects beyond words, an etiquette of living together.  A shared way of life envelops the pastoralists of Byambasuren’s movies.  They may be marginal to civilization but they are centered in their world.

The lives of the herders are depicted as rich in life and animals, in contentment and adventure. Admittedly, their world  is  portrayed sympathetically, there are no impossible problems, no gut-wrenching injustices, no hopeless situations  in these movies. But there are flies and dirt and wolves. Things break, animals die, the baby has a snotty nose, the boy wants a television.  Modernity is  wiggling its way in, and with it the impossible problems.

Part II : The Politics

Far from presenting an uncomplicated utopia,  Byambasuran is skillful in raising big questions in little details.  A cheap plastic milk ladle that was not designed right for its job is left behind in the pristine summer pastures; the nomad father wonders how best to support the education of his daughters.  What is the good life and what is an appropriate level of technology?  How do we integrate the beneficial aspects of modernity with the social and cultural strengths of tradition?  Is tradition always restrictive and change always liberating?  Is (small c!) conservatism necessarily oppressive towards women and minority cultures?

Byambasuran’s nomads are not purists: they have motorcycles and solar panels and portable windmills.  They want batteries from the market just like us. And batteries are not innocent things.  Yet her nomads live happy lives on a tiny fraction of the fossil energy that anyone I know uses.  In some sense her movies are a detailed argument for a more balanced way of life.  She makes a strong statement in the most non-confrontational and charming  of manners.  There is no us vs. them politics in her movies but that doesn’t mean she is not saying something quite challenging to the pretensions of our civilization as a satisfying way of life,


4 Replies to “Pastoralist Propaganda”

  1. Beautiful. My favorite line:
    They may be marginal to civilization but they are centered in their world.

    Reminds me of a museum I had the opportunity to visit in Kazakhstan. The Kazak people were (still are?) pastoralists such as the folks you discuss here. Their nomadic existence is very well portrayed in the museum. The museum guide we had was very ebullient and likely as important in bringing forth the ‘story’ as the artifacts on display. We in the west have our own fascinating history, but it is quite impressive to soak in the experiences from cultures in the east. Mare’s milk anyone?

  2. Michelle,
    I was able to watch “The Story of the Weeping Camel” but not the second one. Very interesting movie. It made me sad seeing their culture change in town, the children mesmerized by a T.V., the teenagers standing around in the street some with a bicycle, some wearing blue denim, doing nothing productive…the overhead wires attached to poles with tops that could be replaced easily (I’m sure the wind and storms take their toll) , the dirt in the streets and around the Yurts bare of plants. Compared to the desert the town was a sad and depressing place to live. Hardly a move forward into a better life.

    It always saddens me when families lose their culture to western modernization. As I watched the movie I wondered what the people did for money that they could afford to live in town? How did they afford a T.V. and electricity if it would cost a whole herd of sheep when they no longer cared for herds? It reminds me of so many subsistence cultures that lose the younger generation to the Western consumer mindset.

    I enjoyed the ritual of singing and violin playing to get the new mother camel to accept her baby. I can see why it would remind you of Bunny. And the camels tears at the end, almost as if the music hypnotized her and let her fears and pain out, allowing her to get past her difficult birthing and learn to love her baby. Very touching. I agree it is beautiful haunting music that speaks a language of harsh land, cold wind, desert, the camels, and people who share it.
    thanks for sharing,

  3. Thanks Clem and Jody!
    I got The Cave of the Yellow Dog from my public library, it’s a wonderful movie about a girl and her dog.

  4. Jody- you are so often so organized and thoughtful that your posts seem like complete chapters in your upcoming book….

    about 25 years ago i was allowed a peek in to the world of small scale farming when a friend asked me to come along to visit one of their friends. What i saw was an older couple in the midst of a long drawn out struggle with the death of the husband. At that point he was effectively confined to a hospital type bed in the living room, his debilitating and soon to be fatal situation had taken over the couples life. He had been the adequately successful breadwinner until a short 18 months previously, however they had no significant savings or investments other than their mortgaged home. So they had racked their brains to figure out how the wife was going to manage financially after the husband was first functionally incapacitated and then finally gone.

    His bunk was next to a large sliding glass door where he could look out over the back yard garden. I complimented them on having such a impeccably well organized and beautiful “yard’. They lived in a fairly rural setting on a small lot of perhaps a quarter acre situated directly on the road. Surrounding them were much larger and quite old family farms, one of the few parts of the area not given over piece by to piece over the years to development, everything from small subdivisions of WWII workers homes to recent McMansion mushrooms. Their “yard” stood out starkly and beautifully from the pastures, corn and potato fields surrounding them. I was invited to come out and look more closely and was surprised that the entire garden was given over to a large variety of herbs and leafy vegetables, rather than say the flowers more usual in modern subdivision plantings.

    Then they blew me away by relating how this garden on this small plot was supporting them,’
    and in pretty great style at that. Most of what they produced went usually daily to a network of small restaurants within 20 miles. Gross sales had risen steadily over the last two years as they learned their clients needs, and were now over
    $ 140,000, and still growing….

    There is hope yet !! This clever and determined but seriously challenged older couple had made the best of what they had to work with….
    and were bravely going forward.

Comments are closed.