Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth: Khadak (2006)

reviewed by Julie Christensen© 2007

Western filmmakers Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth are not new to Mongolia. Brosens, a cultural anthropologist, has filmed in Mongolia for over a decade and is well-known for his award-winning documentaries, Mongolia Trilogy: City of the Steppes (1994), State of Dogs (co-director, 1998), and Poets of Mongolia (co-director, 1999). Woodworth, born in D.C., raised in Europe, and trained in film at Stanford, directed a very nice short documentary Urga Song in 1999. Their first feature film, Khadak capitalizes on the directors' previous work in documentary and on their familiarity with Mongolia, bringing together a strong European production crew with native art direction and music and some talented young Mongolian actors. Quintessentially Mongolian (more below), Khadak has been playing all the festivals—Sao Paulo, Leeds, Hof, Thessaloniki, and Stockholm; Sundance, Jerusalem, and Toronto, where it received honorable mention for the Swarovski Cultural Innovation Award (which recognizes artistry, innovation, and audacity); and Venice, where it won Lion of the Future (Luigi de Laurentiis Award for a First Feature). It will play in D.C. at the Environmental Film Festival on 24 May.

Khadak will delight many viewers with its exquisite cinematography by Lithuanian Rimvydas Leipus, a graduate of the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK), where he studied from 1986 to1992, and who is best known for his work with director Sharunas Bartas— The Corridor (Koridorius, 1994), The House (A Casa, 1997), and Freedom (2000). Leipus dwells on the awesomely immense and haunting landscape: icy blue sky and snowy steppes, unending and eternal; water, frozen under ice; the yurt, luxurious and warm inside; the herds of sheep and goats; and the stark solitude of one tree, one boy, and one horse at the junction of land and sky. Originally titled Color of Water, the film was retitled Khadak (the name of the blue scarf that symbolizes an ancestral spirit) in keeping with the film's transition from documentary to feature, from landscape to mindscape. The transition is a logical one for Brosens and Woodworth, who have always privileged narrative and indigenous story-telling. This is particularly clear in State of Dogs (Brosens and Dorjkhandyn Turmunkh), which follows the wandering spirit of the sheepdog Baasar, shot as a stray on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar.

Khadak opens with a double narrative frame: “You were born with a special destiny,” the hero Bagi's mother tells him, as she begins his story. But that story is framed by another recounting. As the film opens, a young Mongolian face, covered with coal, stares straight at the camera and slowly begins to count. That performance is repeated later in the plot and in the closing frames as a kind of “roll call of the elements” or list of the supporting players: 1. brother, 2. river, 3. dawn, 4. water, 5, mother, 6. me, 7. potato, 8. darkness, 9. death, 10. wrong, 11. man, 12. sky.

The hero of the film is Bagi (Batzul Khayankhyarvaa), a young Mongolian herder who lives with his mother (Dugursuren Dagvador) and grandfather (Damchaa Banzar) in a yurt in the middle of the frozen steppe. He has a herder's special instinct for the animals, along with fits of epilepsy. In one of the most dramatic sequences, the local shamaness (Tserendarizav Dashnyam), arrives at the yurt to retrieve Bagi's spirit from one of the fits he has suffered while trying to rescue a lost, injured sheep. She recognizes him as a kindred spirit, but Bagi's future as a shaman is cut short when the family and other local herders are evacuated from their land, ostensibly because of a serious animal plague, but actually in order to free the land for coal mining. One of the saddest moments in the film is the sight of Bagi's pony lying in the middle of the circle where the yurt once stood, shot by developers.

Bagi's mother thrives in the mining town as the operator of a monster crane. His grandfather pines for the spirits, rocks, and rivers of his past. Bagi's special powers come into play when he senses someone buried in a coal car and digs to find a young girl there—Zolzaya (Tsetsegee Byamba), a lovely singer who supports herself by stealing coal. When she and Bagi jump off the train with several bags full, they find themselves face to face with the local authorities. They are transferred to a local camp where Zolzaya's friends, young musicians and artists, are incarcerated. The rest of the film follows Bagi and Zolzaya, as Bagi begins once again to hear the animals and to return to his ancestors, inspiring the young people to rebellion and liberation.

Khadak will appeal most to viewers who, like Bagi and the other herders in the film, feel torn from the land, from their past, their roots and ancestors. It will also appeal to environmentalists who dream of returning to the land, most probably in a tiny house (see Bethany Lyttle's “Think Little” in the New York Times , 16 February 2007) or a yurt. The film brings me back to the healers at Esalen in Big Sur, off to the far reaches of the USSR in search of gypsy healers and horse rolfers, and I have to admit that the film tempts me to take a prolonged rest in a yurt in Mongolia, or at least a week in the Pasolini room in Brosen and Woodworth's “four star hideaway” in Falaën, south of Brussels.

Not all global nomads will be attracted to the film, of course, or sympathize with its mythic elements, spiritual landscapes, sense of illumination and transfiguration. The film is slow. Some will be bothered by the score. I personally loved the diegetic sound but had trouble with the music—the overpowering tonality that marks the interior acoustics of Bagi's mind—which begins to beat in loud quarter notes, then pounds in eighths at moments of intensity, making me wonder how Bagi could hear any of the ancestral spirits or other creatures calling him throughout the film.

A few critics have dismissed the film as European art house, but for me it is “quintessentially Mongolian.” Brosens and Woodworth will move on to other places, but in Khadak they hang on to the spirit of the ancestral past of Mongolian lore as passionately as their hero. Furthermore, it is precisely the European production crew (German producer, Belgian/American script and direction, Lithuanian cameraman, Belgian editor and sound technician), together with the actors and the masterful art direction by Agi Dawaachu (Mongolian born, German resident) that best captures Mongolia of the modern or post-modern imagination—the absolutely exquisite color of the sky, the unending steppe, a lone tree silhouetted against the horizon, keeper of the spirit of the ancestors, old rituals (often Eastern, here Tibetan Buddhism and Siberian Shamanism), the close relationship between man and nature, man and animals, the warm tones of the yurt, a moveable home in the middle of a vast universe, a point of light and warmth in the vast empty frozen steppe—all set in counterpoint to a bleak urban landscape, with smokestacks and open coal mines, faceless apartment complexes, and stray souls in search of their past. And it is in joint ventures like Khadak that one can imagine Mongolian film and culture of the future. Khadak cites one classical Mongolian film, Ravjagiin Dorjpalam's Mirage above the Gobi Desert (1980), from the Mongolian Film Archive. It would be good to think that joint productions such as Khadak might find creative ways to help maintain, preserve, and distribute films from the Mongolian film studio and archive.

Julie Christensen
George Mason University

Khadak, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany, 2006
Color, 104 minutes
Directors: Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth
Screenplay: Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth
Cinematography: Rimvydas Leipus
Art Director: Agi Dawaachu
Music: Altan Urag
Cast: Batzul Khayankhyarvaa,Tsetsegee Byamba, Dugursuren Dagvador, Damchaa Banzar, Tserendarizav Dashnyam
Producers: Heino Deckert
Production: Bo Films, Ma.Ja.De Filmproduktion, Motion Investment Group, VAF

Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth: Khadak (2006)

reviewed by Julie Christensen© 2007

Updated: 18 Mar 07