michael.benson on Wed, 22 Mar 2000 00:26:49 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Mongolia

Recently a small delegation of Ljubljana-based filmmakers and film
programmers went to Ulaan Baator, Mongolia, to participate in the
first meeting between "western" filmmakers and Mongolian ones. I was
lucky to be on that trip, which took place in mid February, and I've
been meaning to write something about it ever since, but just never
seemed to get around to it. Probably that's because so much happened,
and the visit was so interesting, that I didn't think I could 
manage to do it justice. I couldn't, and I didn't, but anyway 
tonight I decided it was high time to at least try -- so here are the 

One note first though: I don't mention it below, because it was not 
evident in the capital city, but recent reports indicate that 
Mongolia is going through a serious crises. This has been one of the 
coldest winters on record, and millions of domesticated animals have 
died (that much we heard about when we were there, but in the last 
few weeks things have gotten even worse). As a result, the country is 
looking at a very bad situation; the population is almost entirely 
reliant on livestock cultivation. I don't pretend to know what can be 
done to help the Mongolians at this stage, but will forward more on 
that when it becomes more apparent -- and meanwhile would encourage 
people to pay attention to the situation. 

Ok, here's the text:

Mongolia in winter from an aircraft. Hundreds and thousands of square
miles of white. Not square, exactly: the white undulates and cracks,
it spreads out in irregular waves and ridges and is warped, it 
extends to the blinding white horizon, and it seems to go on forever. 
It's like an overexposed image, or a white-on-white suprematist 
canvas, and despite the forms described above, that overpowering 
white takes precedence over any individual surface features -- except 
for those small black dots that might catch your attention after a 
little while. They're like stray punctuation marks on a vast page, 
periods scattered in open space. If you squint to overcome the glare, 
and look closely at these individual black points, you'll see that 
each one is at the exact center of a star form. Each black point _is_ 
the center, in fact, of radiating lines, and those lines extend out 
and then are gone, like the rays of a star, only a star in negative, 
and that's the key to the landscape's code, actually: Mongolia is a 
universe, it's a negative image of the universe above, with each 
black star radiating gray lines outwards, and all the stars together 
constitute a system, a kind of galaxy. And that galaxy is Mongolia. 
If you took a high resolution image of the place from the air during 
the day, and printed it in negative, not positive, you'd have a 
picture that astronomers would no doubt assume is a telescopic shot 
of part of the Milky Way.

But what are those black dots, anyway, in all that frozen milk? Those
periods without sentences on a flash-frozen page? They're called gers
-- not yurts, which is a Russian word -- and they are extremely
well-insulated, felt-lined circular nomad's housing, something very
similar to Native American teepees, only much more wind- and
cold-resistant. Four fifths of the Mongolian population lives in these
things, which not unlike a star have a stove at the center, and the
negative starlight radiating outwards from each of those spots of
black scattered across the steppe are actually human and animal trails
-- the tracks of sheep, or goats, or cows, or horses, or bactrian
camels, for example. Or dogs; there are a lot of dogs in Mongolia.
And, of course, of the human beings who live in those circular

So each of these stars has its solar system of animals, and when they
return from orbit, they (and their human minders) make radiating lines
to and from the gers. The gers in turn are spread across a country
that's more than three times as big as France (another way of
describing it is that it's larger than the UK, France, Germany and
Italy put together). Mongolia has just over two million people -- the
same population as tiny Slovenia -- and it has about 30 million
domesticated animals. This is the least populated nation in Asia, and
yet it's huge, immense. The only reason Mongolia may look relatively
small on a map is because it's surrounded by twin behemoths: Russia
and China. Strange bedfellows -- as Mongolia's torturous history will
attest. (Of course, the Mongols didn't exactly fail to give as good,
or better, than they got -- as the Great Wall, among other things,
will attest.)

Another point about Mongolia from above: it's one of the few 
countries on Earth that you can recognize from a satellite 
photograph. That's because as soon as you cross the border, the 
terrain changes, becoming specifically Mongolian in character. So, for
example, just across the Russian border on the Russian side, dense
forests start; and across the Chinese border as well. Mongolia looks
like a map of Mongolia because Mongolia _is_ a type of terrain, and
therefore a way of life -- the specific way of life which allows for
existence in the conditions of Mongolia. A nomadic way of life, in
other words, where people follow herds across the immense steppe.

A note about the gers: they're perfect. When I first saw one up 
close, I immediately thought that if the human species can ever 
pull itself away from the increasingly mesmerizing grip of the 
electronic screen, and colonize Mars, their housing will look an awful
lot like a ger. In Ulaan Baator (sometimes called "U-B" for short),
they tell a story about a team of Japanese researchers who took a ger
back to Tokyo for testing. They wanted to see if they could discover
ways of improving the thing. They disassembled the wooden spokes of
the umbrella-shaped frame, and took all the sheets of pre-cut felt
back to Japan, and the rawhide laces, and put the thing in a huge
TV-studio sized refrigerator, and tried all kinds of medical
experiments on it. They peeled of layers of insulating felt, replaced
that Beuysian stuff with high-tech fabrics -- but it ended up bleeding
heat at a far higher rate than with the original material. They tried
various other materials; they changed the shape; they replaced the
central stove with other heat sources; and they were eventually forced
to admit that there was absolutely nothing about the ger that they
could improve. In any way. They could only make it less efficient, not
more; they finally had to admit defeat. 

I wonder if someone is even now living in that ger, by the way, on a
Tokyo rooftop. It would make perfect sense.

Ok, but what were we doing going to Mongolia? It was a small 
Ljubljana delegation, which included Maja Weiss, the Slovenian 
documentarian; Koen Van Daele, the programmer at the Ljubljana 
Kinoteka, among other things; and filmmaker Vlado Skafar. We were 
joining a group of other non-Mongolian documentary filmmakers in 
Ulaan Baator -- filmmakers from the Czech Republic, Russia, and the 
US -- to participate in "Inter-Doc", the first meeting between 
Mongolian documentarians and film students and "western" documentary 
film people. We were invited by the good people of the Mongolian 
Soros Foundation for an Open Society, and specifically by Arts and 
Culture Coordinator Ts. Ariunna, and festival organizers Byamba 
Sakhya and Purevdorj Batmunkh.

What happened? Many productive encounters and meetings and 
discussions. Lots of films were shown, both by Mongolian 
and foreign filmmakers. The public was invited to about half the
screenings --which were free, and filled to overflowing -- and the
rest were invitation-only for filmmakers, and these were also packed.
Gankhuyag Namsrai, better known as Gana, moderated the meetings and
discussions and made the best job of simultaneous translation I've
ever seen (and am ever likely to see). He made sure that all the
foreign film freaks and all the Mongolian film freaks could speak to
each other without a hitch, and both he and Ariunna were 
instrumental in adding a week-long tone of civilized good humor, 
and all-encompassing hospitality, to the proceedings.

(It subsequently turned out that Gana, apart from being one of the
nicest people you'll ever meet, has been a pop star in since the 70's;
he and his band -- the first Mongolian rock and roll band -- used to
tour the countryside in the 70's with guitars and amps and a generator
on the back of a truck, set up for the nomads in the wilderness under
the watchful eyes of communist party minders, and play pop to an
audience frequently mounted on horseback. Instead of a smoke machine,
Gana told me, they played in the dust-clouds kicked up by dancers and
animals; instead of spotlights, people would arrange Soviet four-wheel
drive vehicles in a row and shine their headlights on the band through
the dust. On the last night of our visit, Gana took the microphone and
serenaded the foreign film types with not only his own hits, but also
such classics as "I Did it My Way" -- all delivered over taped
accompaniment and with the consummate professionalism of a show-biz

The Inter-Doc documentary festival and workshop lasted for a 
week, from February 14-19.  Outside the Czech Embassy screening room
(where the workshops were held) and the Russian cultural center (where
the public screenings were held), it was typically 40 degrees below
zero at night, and 30 below during the day. However, we're not talking
about an Eastern-European style gray depressing winter here: Mongolia
is one of the sunniest countries in the world. Every day was blinding.
The combination of 30-to-40 degrees below and bright sun creates an
uncanny sensation -- like getting a suntan and dying of hypothermia at
the same time. 

As for the Mongolian films, there were a number of very good ones,
from Nansal Uranchimeg's "Right to Live of Keep Fire", which examines
the hard-scrabble lives of two old miners in an almost abandoned
mining area, to Sakhya Byamba's "Poets of Mongolia", which also looks
at lives that orbit the all-important Mongolian coal mining industry
(co-directed with Peter Kruger and Peter Brosens), to Gendenjamtsyn
Badamsambuu's "Almanac of the new Era", which looks at Mongolian
history in four parts. Speaking of the latter, honest attempts are
clearly being made to grapple with Mongolia's complicated history.
There is a sense that for the first time, filmmakers can explore the
history of their own country without external or internal supervision
and censorship. The section of Badamsambuu's film which I saw looked
at the turbulent years 1900-1921; it's the first time a film has
attempted to do that without ideological cant (Mongolia was as close
to being a Soviet Socialist Republic as it was possible to be without
actually flying the Soviet flag. The only reason Mongolia wasn't
officially a part of the USSR was because the Chinese would never have
stood for it. However, thousands of Soviet troops were stationed in
Mongolia, and when they departed in 1991, the left behind large
quantities of devastated land and entire ghost-towns of shabby
barracks. The question of what to do with these places will be the
subject of an upcoming Mongolian documentary, also by Gendenjamtsyn

We also saw "State of Dogs", an excellent film which was not 
in the festival, but which has probably achieved the highest 
international profile of any Mongolian documentary.  The film, 
which was co-directed by Peter Brosens and Dorjkhandyn Turmunkh, is a
lyrical look at Mongolia through the eyes of a dead dog named Baasar
(very hard to explain, but it works). 

Other details: examining the faces of the filmmakers and audience
members, I was trying to compare them to other faces I've seen in
Asia, when I suddenly flashed to those famous 19th century pictures of
native Americans. And I realized that, of course, this is actually a 
much more valid comparison than to flip through mental archives of 
faces from Korea, or Hong Kong, for example. There is a direct 
genetic and cultural link between Mongolians and the Chukchi peoples; 
and these are the same people that passed across the land bridge 
between what is now Siberia and what is now Alaska, and populated 
what Europeans later called the New World. A look at a book about 
Mongolia only underlines this fact: in the north of the country, the 
reindeer-herding Tsaatan social group uses housing indistinguishable 
from Native American teepees, seemingly down to the last detail.

Digesting this fact, I realized that one way of approaching Mongolia
is to look at it as a place where something similar to the native
American lifestyle -- specifically, I suppose, to the Plains Indians
-- still exists.  (The concept of private property is increasingly
raising its head in Mongolia, a serious problem in a nation where
three-fourths of the population relies on following herds of animals
around a vast commons). And suddenly I imagined what things might have
been like if that land bridge had remained, and if that seemingly
inexorable rising flood of European settlers had met native Americans
who had a chance to call for reinforcements from their ancestors --
producing Mongol hordes on horseback to make the fight for North
America a true contest. Science fiction, to be sure...  

Another interesting point: there is a large-scale revival of 
Buddhism, specifically Tibetan Buddhism, in Mongolia. Mongolia's links
to Tibet are an interesting story; they're not ethnic, they're
cultural and religious. The Dalai Lama can count on one independent
country where he is the undisputed spiritual leader: Mongolia.
Speaking of Buddhism, I myself was informed, in all seriousness and
after some thoughtful contemplation, that I was probably the
reincarnation of a very specific person. But that's another story.

I didn't get a good fix on the local arts scene, there was too 
much film business going on, but would be happy to point interested
people to the right e-mail addresses of people who would know. One
thing that's very clear is that the internet is extremely popular:
cyber-cafes can be found all over Ulaan Baator. The city itself is a
big Soviet-style congregation of concrete domino-style buildings
under giant towering pillars of steam produced by the massive 
coal-fired heating plants that keep the place warm. Ulaan Baator is 
so Soviet that Dorjkhandyn Turmunkh, co-director of "State of Dogs", 
joked that it's actually an Eastern European city that somehow got 
lost in Asia (Deep Asia?). He has a point, and that overall picture 
is helped along by the fact that, unlike the Outer Mongolians -- who 
live right across the border in China -- the Inner Mongolians use a 
Cyrillic script. Their alphabet, in other words, was "loaned" from 
Russia (though how voluntary _that_ was is no doubt open to 
question.). The Chinese Mongolians still use a distinctive, lyrical 
script that runs north-south on a page; this traditional form of 
writing is making a slow come-back in Mongolia itself. 

There's lots more to say, but this is already an overlong report. 
One footnote, though. One the way back to Slovenia, we overnighted in
Beijing. Being hard-working documentarians, yeah right, we 
of course brought our digital cameras to infamous Tiennanmen Square, 
split up, and started recording the Saturday afternoon scene. At some 
point during that hour, Maja Weiss spotted some protesters being 
dragged off the square by police: problem is the moment she noticed, 
she also felt a hand on her own shoulder. She spent the next three 
hours in a freezing interrogation room, being relentlessly questioned 
by the police about just what, exactly, she had seen, just who, 
exactly, she was, how it came about that she had been shooting video 
on the square, don't kid us, you're not a tourist, etc etc. They also 
demanded to look at her material (she actually hadn't managed to 
shoot the demonstration). She was, of course, somewhat shaken by the 
experience, but nothing that a good meal couldn't fix, and we emerged 
from our brief stay in Beijing with a healthy appreciation for the 
situation faced by those in China who are trying to achieve a more 
open society.


Michael Benson  <michael.benson@pristop.si>

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