As movie theaters currently buckle under the weight of the celluloid backwash that studios unleash at the beginning of each new year, it’s easy to lose yourself to despondency and, in a moment of mad lust for a cinematic experience, find yourself with a ticket for “Ghostrider” or “Norbit” clutched tightly in sweating hand. Count on Arts & Lectures to relieve Santa Barbara residents of such a malady. This coming Saturday, A&L presents Central Asian Film Day at Victoria Hall, back-to-back screenings of four earthy, honest films from nations just entering the international film scene, including Mongolia, Bhutan and Kyrgyzstan (can you find these countries on a map?). Film is a new phenomenon for these nations, and the films to be screened are among the first films produced by their respective countries.
I got the chance to preview one film in the event, Byambasuren Davaa’s “The Cave of the Yellow Dog.” Short, simple and hypnotic, “Yellow Dog” follows a family of Mongolian nomads, including young Nansaa who, against her father’s wishes, adopts a stray dog. The entire cast of the movie is played by an actual Mongolian family, the Batchuluns, consisting of a father and mother and three children, who appear to be about six, four and two years old. The plot, with Buddhist underpinnings and a dash of allegory, is pretense. The true joy is ninety minutes of watching the Batchulun family go about their lives among the jaw-dropping Mongolian countryside. Their little nomadic family survives by herding sheep and is entirely self-sufficient. It’s fascinating simply to watch people shear wool with a knife and their bare hands or disassemble a yurt for the road. The film is informal and realistic to the point of anthropological documentary. Especially delightful are the scenes of the children playing with no idea that they’re being filmed. “Yellow Dog” captures at its most honest a life that most Americans have forgotten, if they ever knew it at all.
Saturday’s presentation will begin with “Beshkempir – The Adopted Son,” which follows an adopted boy’s difficult coming-of-age in Kyrgyzstan. Following is “Travelers and Magicians,” directed by Khyentse Norbu, a reincarnate lama who previously directed Bhutan’s first film, “The Cup.” “Travelers and Magicians” is about a young man obsessed with America, a monk, an apple seller, a widow and a daughter who all become traveling companions following the long road out of Bhutan. Beginning at 6 p.m. is “The Cave of the Yellow Dog,” followed by the festival’s final film, “The Story of the Weeping Camel.” Also by Byambasuren Davaa, “The Story of the Weeping Camel” is a documentary about the attempt to save the life of a calf rejected by his mother, and has already swept through everything from Cannes to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and even enjoying sleeper success on DVD.
If “Yellow Dog” is any indication, these films demonstrate a filmmaking ethic unique to these cultures. Each of the nations represented has only started producing films in past decade, and the few films they’ve produced so far hardly make a national cinematic character. But they’re laudable for taking film, a historically Western mode of expression, and turning it in on their own lives and cultures, preserving only the most basic tropes of Western storytelling. These films document in loving detail the joys and concerns of these communities, and find, with a steady hand, universal concerns which film has forgotten how to address without the shorthand of clichŽ.
Arts & Lectures’ Central Asian Film Festival begins at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24 at the Victoria Hall Theatre.