1992 Directed by Ulrike Ottinger.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 5, 1993
A genuine “epic,” Ottinger's documentary on the nomadic tribespeople of Outer Mongolia runs for 8 hours and 21 minutes. By the time you reach the end of the film, you may find yourself feeling numbed and half-hypnotized into some sort of unhurried dreamlike state. And of course, your back may be a bit stiff. Eight and a half hours is a long film by anyone's standards, but fortunately the movie is being shown in three parts which can be stretched out over the next couple of weeks. Taiga is less of a standard documentary than it is an exercise in total cultural immersion -- not unlike Ottinger's earlier film Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia, another long and hypnotic film that took more of a mythological and fairy tale-like approach toward the arrival of some Western women in the outer reaches of Mongolia. From the opening moments of Taiga, we are with the tribespeople, and no one else. Nomadic groups like the one featured here have been the sole residents of the Mongolian steppes for thousands of years, their lifestyle virtually unchanged, regardless of the encroachment of the ruling Soviet society that has, among other things, established the occasional “trading post” where the tribes may exchange meat and cloth for such necessities as flour and “tea bars.” In order to capture the feel of life with these people, Ottinger does the wise thing and lets the camera run (and run, and run), enjoying frequent 360-degree pans that let you know just where you are. Surrounded by barren-looking mountain ranges, the Mongol's home territory is gorgeous in a stark, overriding manner. It seems that all you see are wide open grasslands on which the nomads herd their flocks of sheep and desolate peaks in the distance. It's a harsh, sterile environment, despite its natural beauty, with cold winds forever whipping around the people's tiny animal-skin huts, or “yurts.” Analogies to the past history of Native Americans abound, but the Mongols have yet to be wiped out or absorbed into surrounding societies. Indeed, according to one elder tribesman, few people pay attention to the nomads, except when the rare census-taker appears on the horizon. Despite the sense that you've taken Mr. Peabody's WayBack Machine way, way back, odd reminders of the 20th century crop up now and again: while the majority of the tribespeople traverse the steppes on horseback (or, occasionally, reindeer), motorcycles are glimpsed from time to time, as are plastic bowls and colorful gingham skirts. Apparently we're not so far from “reality” as we might like to think. Taiga is an acquired taste, hardly for everyone. As a documentary record of a race that may be vanishing before too long, it's brilliant. As a thrilling week at the movies, it's, well, it's long. You might want to build a yurt and bring a pillow.