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on 24 September 2016
We are or were a nomadic people. Our ancestral journey out of Africa was obviously a thing of movement, its momentum carrying us around the world through many generations. The hunting and gathering way of life is what humans knew and experienced up until about 10,000 years ago when the first seeds were domesticated and planted. That simple but momentous act stopped us in our tracks. If we could create a food supply, grow it from the earth, our days of wandering and searching might be over. And so it proved. We learned to settle down, stay in one place, call it home. The repercussions from this are still ongoing as our numbers press up against the environment and place pressure on it to sustain us. The human world population has doubled in my lifetime, an alarming statement, but even more alarming on the ground.
The word ‘nomad’ comes from the Greek ‘nomas’ which means ‘pastoral tribe’, a people who roam to find pastureland for their grazing animals. It’s estimated there are still 30 to 40 million nomadic people scattered around the world in underpopulated areas. These places are infertile with poor soils and harsh or extreme climates: desert, tundra, steppe and polar regions. Movement is therefore the best survival strategy for exploiting scarce resources. Shelters and goods are portable, carried with the help of animals: horses, mules, yaks, camels, reindeer. The carbon footprint of nomads is among the lowest of any human group on the planet. They tread lightly, leaving little evidence of where they have been. It’s why our ancestors created no monuments or other records of their existence, though an astonishing and inexplicable thing began to appear in the world about 40,000-50,000 years ago — representative art, the first signs of symbolic expression in our species. We were still hunting and gathering at that time, following herds of game for sustenance, but along the way we started to leave sketches and paintings of what we were hunting. Cave and rock painters thus became the world’s first artists and historians.
Nomadic bands that still roam the earth are the faces of our ancestors. In this simple, beautiful, unpretentious film, we meet a family of nomads. The Cave of the Yellow Dog is not a narrative film, nor is it a documentary. It falls in between. It’s what used to be called ethnography. Classics of this kind are Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934). Ethnographies are snapshots of reality unadorned, real people in real-life settings. There are no storyboards and scripted lines. There is no well-developed narrative. The only thing here the filmmaker hangs onto for some dramatic effect is the fable of the yellow dog in the cave whose imprint is moral and therefore affects those who hear it.
The film has no actors, only local people, mainly a nomadic family. If anything, the main characters are landscape and nature: the wide western Mongolian steppe, the treeless mountains and vast clear horizons, the rain and endless sky, the animals who live in the region: sheep and goats, horses and yaks, wolves and vultures. And of course the dog, this one named Zochor, who becomes important in the lives of the children in the family, especially in Nansal’s. She is about six or seven, her younger sister maybe four, her baby brother not yet two.
The film opens when a man in a vehicle brings Nansal back to the family yurt. The yurt stands in open steppe next to a stockade built by her father. Sheep and goats are penned in there. Two horses and yaks are tied up elsewhere. The father also has a motorbike which he sometimes uses to take sheep hides into town and pick up supplies (for example, rice and barley).
Nansal is happy to be home. She missed it and her family. She’s a schoolgirl now and school is distant. It is bright summer and the freedom of the steppe abounds. She is joyous and so pretty in her school uniform, but she complains to Mum that the collar is too tight and starched. She wants to get out of the uniform. We watch as Mum puts traditional Mongolian clothes on her daughter, the sort they all wear (a form of clothing called deel, a kind of loose long robe with a sash worn round the waist that acts as a belt would).
Nansal is cute, her cheeks rosy, her eyes bright, a red ribbon in her hair. All Mongolian children wear ribbons or small flowers in their hair, a sign of beauty and purity. It works: these children are beautiful and pure.
As the eldest, Nansal helps most with the family chores: gathering yak dung for fuel, helping Mum make yak cheese, carrying buckets. Being Mongolian, a descendant of the great Khan horsemen, she can also ride a horse, even at her young age. Her parents trust her on it, so she is allowed to tend to the animals on her own. For instance, the sheep like to graze in distant upland pastures where the grass is fresher and tastier. Nansal’s job is to fetch them and bring them home before nightfall. But being a child, being curious about the world and her surroundings, tending sheep is not enough to keep her interested. So, while the sheep are busy eating and paying no attention to her, she wanders and explores.
Her parents have warned her about wolves in the area and told her not to go near caves. She knows this. But she is also a little girl and parents are not everything. Curiosity also exists in the world. She cannot always be good and obey what Mum and Dad say is best.
One day she leaves her horse with the flock and climbs over rocks up towards a high peak. Maybe she wants a better view of the land or maybe she just wants to explore and discover. Things are not explained.
While climbing Nansal discovers a cave. She stops outside it, frozen by her parents’ command. Inside something lives. Nansal hears a growl. What does a wolf look like up close? Is he cute like a dog? A child’s reasoning cannot be rational. It’s built on emotions and sensations. The mind, just starting out in life, is flooded with new sense data, encounters, experiences. What a child follows mostly is curiosity, the urge to see, discover, know.
The sounds from within the cave continue. Nansal cannot remain frozen forever. As she starts to enter the cave a white dog — not a wolf — bounds out. The dog is no longer afraid of the intruder and stops growling. When he sees the unthreatening little girl he relaxes and becomes playful. Nansal is the same and a bond between them is immediately made.
Nansal returns home with the horse, sheep and her new canine friend whom she has named Zochor (Mongolian for Spot). But Dad is not pleased. He says she can play with him for now but the dog has to go tomorrow. He’s dangerous and cannot hang around the yurt. Why dangerous? It’s Zochor’s scent, Dad says. The wolves know it and will follow it. If they kill and eat the sheep they will destroy the family livelihood. Nansal knows all this already. These things have been preached to her forever. But she has fallen in love with beauty. She loves Zochor’s beauty and cannot easily release it from her heart. She will have to disobey Dad, but how?
Papa is busy herding the yak. Mum is busy in the yurt with chores and the two young ones. Nansal hides Zochor in the corral among the sheep. Papa won’t find him there. He will think he’s gone away. It’s not a great plan but it’s the best she can come up with.
The next day when the sheep are let out and taken upland to pasture, Zochor is off his leash, bounding and yapping. Dad is not thrilled. I thought I told you the dog has to go. Nansal hears the words and shamefully droops her head. Dad is right. Papa is always right. He is the person we have to obey. He is our leader, our strength, our guide. Without him we are nothing. But look at Zochor. See his spots and wagging tail. Look into his eyes and what do we see? We see love. He loves me. I love him too. He’s beautiful and he’s mine. I found him and he followed me. He doesn’t want to go back, but Dad says he must.
She tries. She brings him back to the cave. But Zochor’s worldview is this: after Nansal, her siblings, the sights and sounds and smells of the family yurt, this cold, dark, empty cave is intolerable. Zochor won’t leave Nansal.
Thunder clouds build on the horizon. The day in mid-afternoon darkens. The rain pelts down. The drops are large and sting. There is no shelter. Nansal rides on in the rain and comes to another yurt. An old woman takes her in: “Come in little one. You’re all wet.” She gives Nansal new dry clothes, hangs the wet clothes over the fire, feeds the little girl and tells her a story. It’s the story of the yellow dog and the cave. In the firelight Nansal’s face is radiant. Her eyes widen as she listens. The old woman’s voice is gentle. Her words are magical things. They make vivid the world Nansal sees in her imagination.
A young woman was lonely on the steppe until one day she met a young man who was also lonely. After they met their loneliness disappeared because they found each other and love. The woman was threatened by wolves but the yellow dog from the cave saved her, chasing the wolves away. But the dog saved more than the woman. By saving her he saved the man too and the love he had for the woman. This effort of the dog means he will be reincarnated in the next life as a strong man. The tail of the dog will become a ponytail on the future man. This is the story of the cave and the yellow dog in it.
Zochor is white and spotted, not yellow like the famous dog in the cave. But in Nansal’s eyes Zochor’s white becomes yellow. He is a hero. He came to be among the family. The old woman’s story confirms it.
The summer season is ending and new pastures must be found before winter sets in. The family must move on. The wooden carts and yaks must be organised, the yurt pulled down, disassembled, put onto the carts. The family and animals will migrate. Zochor must be tethered. The wolves must not be allowed to follow the family and herd.
Nansal is disconsolate as the family departs the next day, she on one of the carts, Zochor left behind. But this will not be the end of their story. You will have to watch the film to find out what happens to Nansal and Zochor.
The filmmaker Byambasuren Davaa is a Mongolian woman who grew up in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Raised and educated in the city though she was, she often travelled as a little girl with her family in the summer months to the steppe country of western Mongolia. Her mother was born there and all her ancestors come from there. She tried to study film at a film academy in Ulan Bator but was disappointed with her progress there. She got a grant to go to Germany to study film and did so without regret. She feels grateful for the opportunity. In the extras section of the DVD she tells us in German (with English subtitles) about this experience.
Germany and the West at first dazzled her. All these riches and choices. All these material things. This place is a wonderland. But as time passed the lure of lucre wore off. She began to get homesick for things that can’t be priced and stocked on shelves. She missed Mongolia and the sky. She missed the air and people and the vast openness of the country. She says she had to go to Europe to understand how much she loved home and why, and this film emerges from that love. You can feel it. The riches in it are simple: a warm fire, yak’s milk, shelter from the rain, mother’s love, Papa’s wisdom, the animals, the sun and sky. She loved and missed the feeling of all this, and, bless her heart, put this feeling into the film.
She says, in effect, “We couldn’t train the family as actors and didn’t want to, even if we could. There was little we could tell them to do, especially the children who had no interest in our plans and desires. Instead, we let the cameras roll when the family were least self-conscious, when we were around them long enough for them to forget about us and what we were trying to do.”
Her patience paid off. Her lovely film captures a vanishing way of life, the way of all our ancestors if we trace our family lines back far enough.
We roam because it’s in our blood, in our genetic memories. We climb mountains, cross deserts, gaze up at the night sky. We are wanderers and our wandering has made the world we know. Our problem now is that we’re running out of room. The world is shrinking, the open spaces collapsing around us. It makes us narrower in mind, spirit, experience. If we lose what has made us who we are we will also lose the future. The earth will go on but will do so without us. This film doesn’t talk about this, but it’s inherent in it all the same. If it weren’t, why did Byambasuren miss Mongolia so much when she was in Germany — a Germany that has so much more than Mongolia has?
She followed her heart and this is what she found when she came back — this love letter from her homeland she gladly shares with the world.