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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.