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Taiga, Part 1

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Taiga A Documentary

Watching a film like "Taiga" is an undertaking entirely apart from the usual experiences we have at the movies. It is eight hours long, but comes in three parts; I have so far seen the first part, at 199 minutes, and it resides in my memory with something of the same weight as an actual journey to another land.

I am fully aware that an epic ethnographic documentary about the nomadic tribes of Mongolia is not a film most people think they want to see (indeed, my own feet dragged on my way into the theater).

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But for those who are curious, "Tiaga" is an experience that causes us to think about why we live as we do, what it is to be human, and what is important in life.

The Darkhad and Soyon Uriyanghai peoples live in a vast valley in Northern Mongolia, much as their ancestors have for centuries. They move between their summer, autumn and winter camps, setting up their yurts - large, portable round tents, each with a front door and frame made of wood. They tend cattle and sheep. They have peripheral contact with modern life, and we see motorcycles among more ancient styles of possessions. Their religion centers around shamans, women priests whose ceremonies begin at midnight, who go into trances, and who must be awaked by dawn lest their spirits stay in the other world.

"Taiga" is the record of a long period spent by the German filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger among these people. She directed, photographed, and wrote the sparse titles that introduce each segment. What we understand at once is that the subjects of her film are not people in a hurry. They live according to the seasons, not the hours, and the film adopts a certain patience. It's not one of those once-over-lightly documentaries where we get a quick snapshot of colorful nomads and then there's a fade to the sunset.

At first, the approach is disconcerting: Is anything ever going to happen in this film? Then we become comfortable with the rhythms of their daily lives. In Part One, we attend a shamanistic ceremony and a wedding. We listen to a folk story, see boots being made, and visit a sacred tree, all adorned with feathers, skins, horsehair and other gifts from those who have been here before.

We watch food being prepared. In particular, we follow the slaughter of a lamb through all of its particulars, as every ounce of the lamb is used according to traditional practices; the intestines are cleaned, the organs are set aside, the blood is drained and saved, and choice cuts of meat are reserved as prizes in a wrestling tournament. Then we observe all of the stages in which meat dumplings are made.

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Why does Ottinger show us the process in such detail? Because her film doesn't want to chatter, "Meat dumplings are a favorite food of the Mongols"; it wants to say, "Here is exactly how these people raise, tend, slaughter, dress, prepare, cook and serve an animal, and how food serves both a ceremonial and a family purpose." After seeing this film, I could make dumplings according to the Mongol way - and maybe I will.

These people, living from the land, use everything. Their herds give them plentiful supplies of milk, and, casually, the film documents how many ways they use it. At various times we see them preparing salted milk tea, cottage cheese, yogurt, and milk liquor. Then we witness a milk can employed for an ingenious barbecue: Rocks are heated in a fire, and then the hot rocks and chunks of meat are dropped into the can, which is twisted shut to form a sort of pressure cooker.

One sequence involves a local wrestling match. What is remarkable is how good-natured it is, as the wrestlers strut in their homemade uniforms and then square off, and their audience kneels in a ring, absorbed. There is no applause for the winner, but instead hand gestures, palm toward the sky, as if to indicate that the champion has lifted himself above the ordinary.

The season comes to an end, and the tribes disassemble their yurts and load them, and all their other possessions, into oxen, for the trek to the winter quarters.

What occurred to me, watching the film, is that time does not slip away for these people. They do not ask where the day went, because they were at its side. They respect one another and themselves, they are deeply courteous, they live in harmony with the land, and although their lives seem hard to us, they are not unhappy lives, because everything has a purpose, and the purpose is clear to see.

If you commit yourself to this epic experience, leave your watch at home. This is a long, slow film. There is no narrator imparting breathless banalities. No cute reaction shots of grinning children or wrinkled grannies. No lovable puppies. No clichés about the simple nobility of these ancient tribes. No documentary packaging. Ulrike Ottinger was invited into the lives of these peoples, and she stayed a long time, watching and listening, and then she made a film about what she saw and heard. That is worth doing, and worth seeing.

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