Thursday, October 27, 2005
KIRAN OVER MONGOLIA
This is my formal review of a wonderful film. Joseph Spaid, the filmmaker, sent me a pre- release copy. Folks, this is the real thing. See it if you can.
A Very Different Kind of Bird Film
By Stephen Bodio
“Kiran” is the Kazakh word for “golden.” It is also the adjective that the eagle trainers of western Mongolia use to describe the qualities that make the best hunting birds, an untranslatable combination of “noble” and something less definable.
Kiran Over Mongolia is a visually stunning documentary that tells an almost mythic tale. Kuma, a young Kazakh from Ulaaanbaatar (vividly rendered with all its bright lights, bustle, and grime, complete with Simpsons -style cooling stacks) travels hundreds of miles to Mongolia’s wild western mountains. There, he seeks a master who will help him pursue his unlikely dream: to catch and train a hunting eagle, the way his people have done for millennia.
The Kazakhs, an ancient Turkic – speaking people closely related to the Kirghiz, now inhabit Kazakhstan, parts of the northern part of Chinese- occupied Turkestan (Xinjiang), and the far west of Mongolia, where that country, Siberia, Kazakhstan, and China come together. Oddly, the Kazakhs in Mongolia may preserve the “purest” Kazakh culture. The Altai mountains on those remote borders were a refuge for people, both wandering herders and villagers, who fled Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture in Kazakhstan and escaped the Chinese invasion of “Turkestan”. More eagle hunters live in this small area than in all the expanse of Kazakhstan, as I found when I traveled there in 1998 and 2000.
The film’s first scenes contrast young Kuma’s discussions with his octogenarian grandfather, a former “eagler”, with the sights and sounds of the city. They sit on a hillside above the town and discuss his obligations, with the traditionalist grandfather urging filial obedience upon Kuma while he worries in a voice- over about marrying a Mongolian girl. But mostly, his mind is on eagles. Soon, he and his father leave and begin to drive west through the daunting spaces of central Mongolia. They grind endlessly over stony plains and through bare hills, raising plumes of dust from the rutted dirt roads, staying at crude rest stops and hospitable yurts. Often the only scenery consists of a few camels drifting across the track. The hundreds of miles between the capital and Olgii seem to be a journey back in time as much as one through space.
The travelers arrive in Bayaan Olgii just in time for the Eagle Hunters’ Festival, which only confirms that impression. In September, hundreds of eaglers descend on Olgii to display their birds and compete in games of skill and craft. The sudden sight of a horde of horsemen trotting straight at you, heads topped with caps of fox fur and lynx fur, red silk and owl plumes, hooded eagles on their heavy gloves, transports you instantly to the time of Kubilai or Jenghiz.
After making inquiries of several eaglers, Kuma is accepted by Khairatkhan, an amiable middle-aged Kazakh with a stern, fiercely weathered face that is as likely to crack into a sudden grin as an eagle- like frown.. Khairatkhan takes Kuma on a journey of understanding, from his first innocent disappointment when Khairatkhan’s eagle misses a hare (actually, he explains, a more difficult quarry than the traditional fox because it is quicker and more “dodgy”) to his eventual accomplishment.
The narrative and visual skills of filmmaker Joseph Spaid, who spent six months with the eaglers, make the whole process as clear to the viewer as to young Kuma. Kuma learns to carry and hood the temperamental birds and how to make them comfortable. He learns to feed them without giving them too much, despite their rapacious tendency to gobble and grab. In a memorable sequence, he calls the eagle to him from a distance, and stands without ducking when the flying dragon hits his arm and nearly knocks him down. Their training culminates in the bird’s killing a fox, a scene done skillfully and cleanly, with neither flinching nor horror.
To this reviewer, perhaps the most fascinating moment in the training sequence comes earlier, with the trapping of Kuma’s own first eagle. Khairatkhan sets a circle of netting, “like a yurt” as he says to Kuma, around a dead hare, then tethers a live crow nearby to make the eagle jealous. After a long wait, the eagle appears, cruising horizontally. Suddenly, she falls out of the sky like a cruise missile and slams into the net. The two hunters are momentarily nearly hysterical at their good luck, and cannot stop laughing, though they do remember to give the poor crow his freedom (he flaps away toward a frozen lake without a backward look.)
The film's visuals are unique. The vivid black- and- golden eagles and their capped and booted handlers glow in the brilliant light against a lunar background of bare mountains shaped like frozen waves, plains like a sea of rippling stone. To most urban humans, they inhabit a world as far from any modern time and space as another planet.
A mention should be made of the wonderful soundtrack. Kazakh ballads, unlike much Asian music, are extremely accessible to western ears, reminding me a bit of Celtic folk songs, though using an instrument, the dombra, with only two strings. Some sound martial, with a rhythm like galloping horses; others are obviously love songs. (Actually, in my own travels in the region, all were described to me as “about boy and girl” or “about love.”)
These last horsemen still ride through Kiran in a timeless moment, eagles on their fists, plumed fox hats on their heads. Will their ways survive our time? We can be grateful that this record exists, and hope that the ambitions of young men like Kuma will keep the tradition alive.