Taiga

11/22/2009

Germany / 1992 / Mongolian

Directed by Ulrike Ottinger

Still from 'Taiga'Taiga, by German filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger, is a singular documentary work that has few parallels in contemporary culture. The film presents a compelling challenge by illustrating that, in cinema, one’s way of seeing and one’s comprehension of time itself are very much intertwined. It does so by transforming both of these concurrently, until one finds oneself in a very different place and on a very different time scale than what received knowledge and experience of filmgoing up until that point would anticipate. This is a place marked by meditation and unusual intimacy, a place where duration and space are seemingly without measure. Apart from being a film, and far more importantly, Taiga is an experience, one that seizes the viewer’s temporal perception during its span at the very least, and possibly for quite a bit longer.

Over more than eight hours, director Ottinger traverses a broad swathe through life in Mongolia, from  nomadic reindeer herders and yurt-dwellers, to the citizens of small settlements and finally, the big city, Ulaanbaatar. The amount of time that she is willing to spend watching and listening reveals her as a director preoccupied not with spectacle and a succession of events, but with the moods and feelings of places, affixing to them the energy of spirits in an animist cosmology.

The film is divided into ten distinct acts, whose contents are too manifold to recount without sounding like a returning, overexcited tourist. Superficial observations of the culture and ways of life of the people are built up with ancillary details that give depth to what we see. While at first life seems seasonal but ultimately unchanging, two elderly men and a woman reflect on the government’s shifting of its policies and the nationalization of herds. A hunter, whose existence appears very solitary, balances self-sufficiency with the company of other passers-through. In a poignant image of traditional culture’s manifestation within modernity, a troubadour at an amusement park sings an ancient epic song to a group of visiting children.

And then there is the constantly changing dynamic of the two belief systems in Mongolia, which intertwine and have influenced one another over the years: the Lamaist branch of Buddhism and the older, Shamanist beliefs, where spirits inhabit all things. In the latter category we see two examples of shamanesses who perform ceremonies by going into trances in which they commune with these spirits. The shamaness is a catch-all healer, seer, and sage for her community, a female mystic whose power is greater than feminine mystique. It is easy to see why such a figure would appeal to the filmmaker.

Still from 'Taiga'While the film naturally contains edits, everything shown with great deliberateness, Ottinger gives each occurrence the time that it requires to unfold – no more and no less. With narrative cinema, we have an idea of the manner in which things should transpire, and we become impatient if anything impedes or otherwise challenges this preconceived order. The people and places that appear in Taiga are not subject to this expectancy. Things happen from start to finish, and while they may mystify (Ottinger provides subtitles for the dialogue and intertitles telling the location of the scene, but little additional explanation), the viewer is compelled to accept them, as one would in any country or situation that is foreign to them.

The more chance that a film is given to permeate the screen the more it ends up determining its own shape, and thus the things onscreen given license to run their course. The form that Taiga reveals to us, informed greatly by the manner and pace of its subjects, is a sprawling and uncompressed one, not bounded by time’s strictures. Spending months traveling through Mongolia with her camera and sound recordist, Ottinger was thoroughly absorbed by the place and what she saw there. What makes this film distinctive is that the viewer, on the other end of things, reciprocally experiences her immersion. By proxy we feel the place in a heightened way that mirrors the way a filmmaker does, as we become the sort of involved observer that is looks through the camera at these people – if one stays with this film, and pays attention, it is impossible not to become so; involution is almost obligatory. The ontological barrier between subject and observer that may arise in ethnographic filmmaking is minimized, in large measure, because of the viewer’s eye-level experience of each act’s development.

Still from 'Taiga'The lengthy takes cause the viewer to experience time very much in the way that the subjects of the film do, rather than in a cinematic way. We feel the days (occupied with tasks, rituals, interactions, games) pass into the nights of repose on a journey. And in an even more profound way, we experience the shifting seasons that guide the nomads’ movements. While not materially wealthy, time is something that they have in abundance. In this state of observing, time is not slowed, but it arrives in a manner of lucid infinity that represents simultaneously the vastness of the Mongolian land and the darkened, intimate warmth of a home.

We also experience the physical dimensions of the landscape that is in stride with a story of human migration, one of many that trace their time-worn paths across the vast and teeming surface of the Earth. The geographic thrust of the film begins on the outer fringes of habitation, making an inward journey until it arrives at Ulaanbaatar. It feels very much like the movement of the nomad being drawn toward modernity, out of the meticulously consonant land and into the controlled one. Ottinger’s choice of movement (starting from the outside and coming inward) goes, interestingly, in a different direction from the way that many people were moving in Mongolia at the time; following the collapse of communism, the 1990’s saw a lot of joblessness and, as a result, an enormous migration of people going ‘back to the land’ to take up farming or herding. This was a retreat into national identity, which a lot of Mongolian people associate with a rural setting, but at the same time, unfamiliar territory for those who had lived (some of them generations deep) in the cities and soums (medium-sized settlements).

While on a train, passing quickly through scenery and glimpsing peoples’ activities briefly, there is a pervasive thought of these things happening, existing, whether or not you were there to see them in that particular time and place. And while in motion pictures it is impossible to make that true – the camera’s very presence, not to mention its mediating power, always modifies the reality surrounding it – the images in Taiga, their power instilling them with a breathing presence and agency, even long after the end of the film, project thoughts of these things happening on a distant landscape, continuing unstinting and belonging to no era.

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