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Something I love about film is the window it can offer into various cultures and ways of living. Though it does not replace serious research or first-hand experience, it gives us the next best thing—a “look.” And with a look, a growing consciousness of the world around us. When I chose to watch Byambasuren Davaa’s The Cave of the Yellow Dog (2005) (in German, Die Höhle des gelben Hundes), I did so because I knew next to nothing about Mongolia, its land, or its people. I wanted to look . . . and learn.
With a sparse plot, Davaa allows the audience to hone in on the details of a nomadic family’s everyday life in the Mongolian steppes. Through their story, we also learn about Mongolian culture, folklore, religion, as well as the way in which the modern world encroaches upon these elements of nomadic life. Furthermore, through a film such as this, we can learn implicitly; Davaa does not merely tell us about the Mongolian lifestyle, but invites us into the family’s actions while weaving their culture into their speech and thinking.
Every family member wears a deel, the traditional clothing worn by Mongolians and other Central Asian nomadic people for centuries. The deel is a single piece of clothing that reaches the wearer’s knees and is fastened with a large sash, usually made of silk. Deels also feature clasps on the right side to hold the garment in place. Young protagonist “Nansal” (Nansal Batchuluun) wears a dark blue brocade deel with a yellow sash. Her mother (Buyandulam Daramdadi) favors purple while her younger sister “Nansalmaa” (Nansalmaa Batchuluun) wears red. Nansal does everything in this deel, including herd sheep on horseback, collect dung to cure meat, and assist her mother cut homemade cheese.
Nansal and her family live in a traditional Mongolian ger, or portable round tent covered in skins. The ger—and the more widely known yurt (from Turkic languages and nomadic cultures)—are used by nomadic groups in the Central Asian steppes and feature wood or bamboo lattices, a door frame, and poles. Their self-supported roofs can be easily assembled and disassembled. When summer comes to an end and Nansal’s family decides to “move on ”, as the mother puts it, they take apart their ger and pack the pieces in wagons ready for travel. To see the process of breaking down this portable home is fascinating and allows the viewer to wonder at what values a mobile life might beget. When Nansal finds the puppy “Zochor” and brings him home, her mother mentions that “maybe someone left him behind when they moved on.” People must choose what they value enough to bring along with them. Perhaps to another family, Zochor was not enough. Moving on, both physically and mentally, is an integral part of the nomadic lifestyle.
Just as poles and rope hold together the family’s ger, so too does Mongolian religion and folklore support and direct Nansal’s story. When Nansal gets lost in the steppes during a storm, she finds refuge in the home of an old woman (Tserenpuntsag Ish) who tells her the tale of the yellow dog. In this story, the patriarch of a rich family sends its beloved dog to live in a cave due to a wise man’s advice to cure his ailing daughter. Nansal finds Zochor under similar circumstances, abandoned in a cave, and the two become inseparable. It’s almost as if the yellow dog has left its own story to enter Nansal’s. Though her father (Batchuluun Urjindorj) disapproves of the dog, Nansal’s mother wonders aloud if it was fate “that he came to us.” We are inclined to believe this to be true later on when Zochor saves the youngest family member and only son, “Batbayar” (Batbayar Batchuluun) from being eaten by vultures.
Mongolian folklore is informed by and imbued with meaning by the family’s practice of the Tibetan Buddhist religion. Perhaps the most notable feature of Buddhism in this film is the belief in reincarnation, that when a living thing dies, it is born again as something or someone else. We know that Nansal and her family adhere to this belief because of how it appears in their casual speech. In the opening scene, Nansal’s father buries the dog with his tail under his head so that “he’ll be reborn as a person with a ponytail.” While he probably doesn’t believe that the dog will necessarily be born again as a person with a ponytail, he enjoys introducing this whimsical notion to his daughter, who delights in it. He adds that “everyone dies, but no one is truly dead.” Such a sentiment must also help the people of this faith let go of the dead just as they must let go of the people, items, and animals that they cannot physically take with them when they pack up and leave. Adhering to Buddhist principle, they learn how to acknowledge and then move on.
It is a delight to see Nansal’s curiosity, to see how her culture will come to shape her values and outlook on life. When she asks her mother if she remembers her past lives, the answer is no. However, her mother adds, people often say that when children tell colorful stories, they are talking about their past lives. Later, when Nansalmaa sees a giraffe-shaped cloud that Nansal fails to recognize, she gleefully wonders if her little sister is remembering a past life. According to the old woman, being reborn as a person is as difficult as balancing a grain of rice on the tip of a needle. “That’s why a human life is so valuable.” Though there are other ways of teaching a child the value of human life, this explanation, one steeped in religion and culture, works well to help Nansal internalize the idea.
As secluded as this family may live, they cannot escape the encroaching modern world. Nansal goes to the city for her schooling. There she must trade in her deel for a school uniform. During the summers, her parents can immerse her in their nomadic culture at home, but they cannot keep modern images and ideas out of her head. Already, she is taken with the impressive height of skyscrapers. With dung she fashions her little skyscraper, expressing her desire to live “at the very top.”
As more people sell their livestock and move to the city, Nansal’s father knows all too well that he cannot keep his family from the modern world. But he also knows that it will be better for his children to grow accustomed to this way of life as his own fades out. And while we, the audience, might like to think that this won’t happen, it will. As a director and a storyteller, then, Davaa has done something important; she has created something to preserve, in a sense, an image of a culture that might not exist in the far future.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (9/17/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Nansal stands next to Zochor in the Mongolian countryside.
Photo Credits: Monika Höfler