And now – visit far-away Mongolia! In family-friendly films!
This one was recommended by my friend P-, who walked up to me at work and said he thought we’d enjoy it. We did.
The Cave of the Yellow Dog directed by Byambasuren Davaa. 2005.
This is a mix of documentary and story, from the director of the award-winning “The Story of the Weeping Camel”. The dvd that we had from the library has the option of showing it subtitled or dubbed, which is vital in a film good for kids who can’t read yet. The basic story is that a young Mongolian girl (maybe about six?) finds a dog when she’s out taking care of the family’s sheep, and brings it home. But two of their sheep have recently been killed, and it’s not clear whether they’ve been killed by wolves or by abandoned dogs who’ve been living with wolves and adopted their habits. Her father is nervous that the dog might also kill their sheep, and forbids her to keep it. Somewhere in the middle, the girl visits with an elderly grandmother, who talks to her about reincarnation and tells her the old story of the Cave of the Yellow Dog. I didn’t know until I watched the Q&A with the director afterwards that it was filmed without a script. They just followed the Mongolian family around filming their daily life – the little girl is the oldest of three children. I think they were able to instruct the adults in a few key conversations, but she said they couldn’t and didn’t make the kids do anything. So there’s some plot, a few brilliant lines, a fair bit of awkward trying-to-act-normal-in-front-of-the-camera dialog, and lots and lots of scenes of beautiful Mongolia and traditional life. The little girl changes from her black and white school uniform into her traditional del. She is sent out with a basket-like backpack and a long wooden fork to gather dung for the fire – her attempts to aim over her shoulder into the basket had us all giggling. She goes to herd the sheep – by herself! On horseback! My children were very envious. Her mother makes cheese, slices it, and hangs the slices up to dry. The kids use the dung as building blocks, and warn each other off of playing with the Buddha. We get to see the inside of the ger (or yurt), floor covered with carpets, and filled with furniture painted in the traditional highly-ornamented orange. At the end, they disassemble the ger and load it onto wagons for their cows to pull to their next site, doing a ceremony of thanks for the old site before moving on. And there are lots and lots of shots of the beautiful Mongolian plains with the mountains in the distance and big open sky. The relatively short interview with the director (in flawless German, with subtitles) adds lots of insight into why she made the movie and what she considers important about the vanishing nomadic Mongolian lifestyle. We are especially interested in traditional Mongolian life, as we go camping in a ger every summer, but this is a heart-warming story set in Mongolia to interest anyone.
In the Wild – Mongolian Horsemen with Julia Roberts. On Nature – Horses. 1998. This is the movie about Mongolia that we own, and frequently, alas, threaten our children with putting in if they can’t decide on what to do for their screen time. It really is better than that, though – not adrenaline-filled, but interesting and beautiful. We get to see the star herself travel to Mongolia and live with a family in a ger for a few weeks while filming the show. She doesn’t speak Mongolian and doesn’t have access to a translator. Still, she’s friendly with the family and shares as much as she can learn about Mongolian life and culture. She learns to milk mares, and we see the poop stain on her jeans from kneeling by the mare for the rest of show, as there are no laundry facilities. She helps take the ger down and put it back up near her host’s father’s ger. The grandfather teaches her a traditional race game, played with sheep knuckle bones, and she teaches the children to play Ring Around the Rosie. She watches the men catch horses from their herd for the boys to ride in an upcoming race, and learns to ride in the hard wooden Mongolian saddle herself. Although decidedly low on the kinds of creature comforts she’s used to, Roberts finds the Mongolians generous and happy. This is a shorter special, only an hour long, and spends more time on fancy shots like watching the clouds move in fast time over the vast sky. The kids, of course, are most fascinated by the other children and want again to ride horses. I find it reassuring evidence of a big Hollywood star’s humanity, as Roberts is willing to be on camera without make-up or a styling team, just trying to get along in a place with no bathrooms where she doesn’t speak the language. It comes on a dvd with a special about horses in America, which we have never been interested enough to finish, though it’s probably great for horse-lovers. We came riding along (pun!) on my love’s Mongolia passion, and for an exploration of Mongolia, it’s fabulous.