Review of "Steppe Games", a new Buryatian film premiered in Montreal
The Buryatian cinema is relatively new to the international audience. For those who have heard about this remote region in Russian Siberia it is often, for historical reasons, associated with neighboring Mongolia. The contemporary Mongolian cinema being long time influenced by the Russian cinema of the Soviet era has been made particularly famous by recent co-productions with European and Asian studios, most notably by Enkhtaivan Agvaantseren who showed the Buryat people in his 2008 historical film “A Pearl in the Forest”, and German-based Byambasuren Davaa whose works depicting nomad life of the Mongols gained several film awards over the last decade. The Buryatian film industry has been equally on the rise, but is still mostly aimed at the national market. So is “Steppe Games”, the first feature film by Bair Dyshenov premiered at the Montreal Film Festival in August 2014 and a surprise choice for a single feature to represent Russia which has long been a regular contestant at numerous international film festivals.
Three warriors, three horses, and three songs, as the tagline says, all interwoven into the Tugnuy steppe of Buryatia, make a unique story that spreads across generations and even centuries. The film is aptly named for it’s the steppe that defines the characters adding a new dimension to their personalities. Called an “eye opener” by the festival visitors, it is indeed stunning, both visually and musically. The scenes of nature are mesmerizing and take much of the screen time for a relatively short, 91-minute-long movie thanks to the excellent camera work and skillful directing. The directing style of Bair Dyshenov is worthy of special mention here as it’s reminiscent of such world-renowned filmmakers as Ning Hao of China (whose recent film “No Man’s Land” also featured at the Montreal Film Festival in 2014) and the Iranian veteran Abbas Kiarostami. The former made “Mongolian Ping Pong” in 2005 beautifully depicting vast Mongolian grasslands and the way they shape children’s characters setting the pace for their mundane activities. And Kiarostami known for his minimalism, the use of poetry, metaphors and panoramic long shots, may have influenced Bair Dyshenov in creating his own style characterized by a mixture of simplicity and complexity and maintaining a thin balance between them. It is especially interesting to draw a parallel between “Steppe Games” and a couple of movies Kiarostami made in the late 1990s. It’s the kind of movie where the landscape can be seen through the car windows, as in “Taste of Cherry” (1997), and still take the focus off the characters inside the car. Where everything takes its time and the camera would wait for a rooster to cross the screen from one corner to another, as in “The Wind Will Carry Us” (1999), it’s just that in “Steppe Games” a rooster is replaced by a car or a horse. Where a cell phone is the only way to connect the remote village to the rest of the world, as yet again in “The Wind Will Carry Us” where Kiarostami makes his hero go up the hill to make a call, just like Dyshenov in “Steppe Games”, which can be seen as a sort of homage to the great filmmaker. But where Kiarostami relies on poetry, Dyshenov makes use of traditional Buryat songs. It’s in the songs where lies the key to understanding our heroes, and who would be able to understand their feelings better than the Buryatian audience? The film has certainly touched the hearts of foreign viewers, but can they perceive the movie the way it was intended by the director? Let’s take a look at possible difficulties which the Montreal festival jury may have encountered during the evaluation of “Steppe Games”.
The mainstream American film market has become increasingly fun and entertainment-oriented which is reflected in the high percentage of sci-fi and fast-paced action movies, often based on comics about superheroes. This leaves very little room for slow-paced dramas, the more so when the audience is forced to read the subtitles rather than sit back, relax and simply enjoy the action. “Steppe Games” is filmed in Buryat and Russian and the subtitles are provided for the biggest part of the movie. However, we don’t see them when the songs start, which leaves the viewers guessing their meaning and ending up having their own interpretation. Some songs seem to be delivered in its entirety which may also hint at their importance for the storytelling, yet the audience gets an impression of something missing, since the frequent use of metaphors and switches between the three warriors and the three time periods is not very helpful. The obvious preference for long takes and still shots showing the result but not the action makes people think and feel as they follow the story, but it takes a risk of confusing some younger audience which may not particularly enjoy traditional singing and would stop caring about the plot altogether. (The last additional screening in Montreal was unfortunately clouded by poor sound adjustment since the film was initially projected in larger auditoriums, leaving the viewers with a want for earplugs.)
Another reason why the American audience can find it difficult to fully appreciate “Steppe Games” is something I would call a “genre confusion”. It’s generally less common in North America than in the rest of the world where films incorporating elements of different genres (drama, action, comedy, musical, etc.) can represent the majority of the national industry (e.g. masala films in India). However, “Steppe Games” dares to blend together a social drama, a comedy, and a musical shortly after the promising start as an historical epic. The viewer can’t help but wonder why the Hugo Chavez joke took so much of the screen time and how it contributed to the plot. Furthermore, the sudden changes of mood, frequent alternations between noisy laughter, choral singing and prolonged silence with little explanation as the story unfolds only add to the confusion and can make the movie-going experience tiresome for an unprepared viewer. It is probably a good idea to know the film’s length from the very beginning since it will give you a hint at what to expect as the plot thickens. You will know that something will be left unsaid and start looking for the clues in the still shots.
With the target audience being said to be Buryats themselves, it remains unclear whether the movie is intended to be shown to the young foreign audience. A significant part of the story revolves around young people in their early 20s and I would expect “Steppe Games” to enjoy a bigger success in Europe and Asia because of its contemplative and thought-provoking nature. It has an ability to grow on you and make you fall in love with its characters, with all their flaws and weaknesses, and appreciate their natural beauty. I would also recommend including either or both of the two previous short-length films by Bair Dyshenov (“Buddha’s Smile” and “The Mother’s Order”) in the screening of “Steppe Games” because those are more accessible and able to tune you in for a unique cinematic experience. “Steppe Games” may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it will definitely not leave you indifferent and will stay with you long after you leave the movie theater.