It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Taiga, Part Three
`Taiga," the austere documentary about the reindeer-herding nomads of remote Mongolia, shows lives that are unimaginably different from our own. In taking her camera to the remote land where they live, the German director Ulrike Ottinger deliberately avoided a "talking heads" documentary in which a narrator explains all. Instead, she allows her camera to sit in the corner of a rude home or dusty field, watching people as they live their lives.
This is, in general, an approach I prefer. But midway through the first hour of "Taiga, Part 3," the concluding section of the eighthour documentary, my attention began to flag. The segment deals with a shamaness who is conducting a seance. She dons a heavy coat, hung with religious objects, and then beats on a large deerskin drum until she goes into a trance.
The camera essentially watches this process, without significant cutting, for more than 30 minutes, often from an awkward vantage point that prevents us from clearly seeing it. Still, you might say, we are privileged: We are inside the shamaness' yurt (portable house), seeing a ceremony few if any Westerners have ever seen before. Yes, I reply, but we saw a very similar scene in the first part of the film. If Ottinger wants to repeat herself, she might explain what is different about this second sequence, but her subtitles are not helpful. (The preceding scene is subtitled "poem about a chief who cannot make decisions," but the lines of the poem remain untranslated.) At some point, a documentarian risks crossing a line between an unwillingness to cut, and an inability to judge. Ottinger crosses that line in this segment of the film, I think. She essentially shows us everything. Still, once we leave the shamaness, the film becomes as haunting as the first two segments were. We arrive, for example, at the forgotten trading centers of Hadhal and Hanch - port cities that were busy, when the Soviet Union thrived, with the comings and goings of merchant ships. But the USSR has collapsed, and the sea trade with it. These ports service just one arrival a year: a merchant ship that tows two others behind it. The shots of this crippled flotilla are a stark image of the collapse of a nation's economy.