This story melds a traditional Mongolian legend with a prevalent climate change issue in a nomadic community. The film humanizes and expresses how water scarcity, drought and desertification directly affect human relationships. Nomadic herders interconnectivity with animals and nature exposes a vulnerability whereby climate changes are exponentially felt. As these harmonious inter-relationships become increasingly disrupted, community and culture itself are under threat. Animal loss, herder livelihood, disintegration of community life and urban migration all factor into this decline of nomadic life and unknown future.
Morin Khuur (The Horsehead Fiddle) is a traditional Mongolian instrument symbolic of cultural identity and reveals how music unites people. The legend of the Morin Khuur and contemporary issue of climate change juxtaposed together in this film offer a perspective to raise awareness and empower efforts to value and restore what human societies are losing from the past.
Childhood friends are united by a horse passed on between them as a prize after a wrestling match at Naadam Games. Years later as adults their nomadic community faces an urgent water shortage and their beloved horse falls ill from digesting plastic. Confronted by recent droughts at a community meeting, it emerges how differently they evaluate the problem.
Batu is a man of tradition and status-quo who decides the solution as always in the past is to dig a new well. Dovchin considers the worsening impact of climate change upon their livelihood, requiring a different way of thinking with a longer term solution. Ultimately a job offer in the city lures Dovchin’s family away, but not before he creates a transformative gift for Batu out of the fallen horse who bound them together.
Runtime: 19mins 57secs
Genre: Fiction, Drama, Foreign
Social Critique Themes: Climate Change, Nomadic Migration, Globalization
Country of Production: Mongolia, Germany
Color: Color Camera Type: Arri Alexa
Image Size: 1920x1080
Frame Rate: 24P
Aspect Ratio: 1:78:1 (16:9)
Web Screening Format: ProResHQ + MPEG4 (Color REC709)
Exhibition Format: DCP (Color DCI-P3)
Film Status: Complete
Rights: All Rights Reserved
What inspired you to make this film?
Co-writer Xueli Han is from Inner Mongolia, China and ethnically Mongolian, yet has never been to Mongolia the country despite living her entire life within 100km of the border. Together, we brainstormed storylines for a short film that would be contemporarily relevant and infuse traditional cultural heritage that endured through time. We researched the horsehead fiddle legend and found it to be a compelling, old and traditional story around this instrument. We decided to set the story in modern-day Mongolia amidst a nomadic shepherd community struggling with climate change. The horsehead fiddle would be the tie that binds two nomadic friends together since childhood. In fact the horse of the protagonist Batu was given to him as a gift from his closest friend Dovchin after a wrestling match, a typical naadam games sport in Mongolia.
What is the message you want to get across though this film?
Climate change is a global issue that deservedly has been receiving more media attention recently. While we hear more about climate change, most people do not relate directly to how it affects their everyday lives. Awareness, education, and direct action are increasing, still few people experience and feel the impact of climate change firsthand. We wanted to personify climate change in a story that shows how real human beings and relationships are affected directly by it and thereby universally relate to it. At the same time, we wanted to show how traditional nomadic society is eroding partially as a result of climate change. The horsehead fiddle became this symbol of two herder’s friendship and embodies the effects of climate change. We were specifically interested to show how water scarcity affects a personal relationship between two childhood friends and consequentially a beloved horse that falls ill.
How was your overall experience working in Mongolia?
After a year of pre-production with local producer/fixer Khasar Sandag of Steppe Fixers Mongolia, we were excited and frightened to shoot a film in one single trip in a foreign language. This was our first time in Mongolia and it was an incredible experience. We were lucky that producer, translator/script supervisor and the rest of the team were so helpful, dedicated and made everything so much easier for us. We even got to experience authentic nomadic herder lifestyle living in ger's (Mongolia style yurt), riding horses, and participate in daily chores.
What are your feelings concerning the future of nomadic societies in Mongolia?
Nomads live in a tough environment and confront a harsh, natural environment. At the same time, they learn how to respect and live in harmony with nature. In the context of commercialization and globalization, nomadic lifestyles are facing unprecedented challenges, and climate change has undoubtedly exacerbated the disintegration of nomadic lifestyles. However, no matter whether the nomadic lifestyle will eventually be replaced by urban lifestyle, nomadic culture will never disappear entirely. As we express in the film, music with its powerful vitality helps to preserve this culture. By raising awareness, education and action we hope there will be a greater chance to restore what is being lost and support nomadic societies around the world.
What did you learn about directing a film in a foreign language/culture?
Fortunately, working with an exceptionally clever and intuitive translator/script supervisor smoothed over many language issues. However, there are inevitably words lost in translation, adaptations, and local colloquialisms. As is often the case, pre- production and rehearsal time are critical factors in filmmaking. We would have liked more time with our actors rehearsing on and off-location.
What do you have planned next?
Given our satisfying and illuminating experience working with cast/crew in Mongolia, we are developing a feature film script there that evolves out of this short film. The story will draw upon the elements of climate change and the horsehead fiddle, with more complex and multi-layered character and story development.