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,