Mongolia film earns major recognition

MIDDLEBURY — A lot of people think filmmaking involves shoots in exotic locations with a pampered cast and crew.
Middlebury’s Sas Carey and Fred Thodal will quickly set them straight.
The two friends spent three weeks in a frigid province of northern Mongolia last summer shooting a documentary on nomadic reindeer herders taking their animals for their annual migration to even colder climes. The filmmakers roughed it, riding assorted quadrupeds through the frigid landscape, overnighting in tents while powering their equipment with a solar panel.
But it was all worth it, Carey and Thodal said during an interview on Thursday. Their resulting 80-minute film, aptly titled “Migration,” has permanently chronicled a centuries-old way of life in Mongolia that is melting away faster than the polar ice caps. And their efforts were recently rewarded with the Earth’s Choice Award in San Francisco’s Earth Day Film Festival, the first in what they hope are several accolades for the film.
Carey has been visiting Mongolia for two decades and has worked with the nomadic herders there since 2003, dispensing medicine and other aid as a volunteer and as a United National Development Program (UNDP) worker. An energy healer, Carey made her first trip to Mongolia in 1994. She found the country to be fertile with positive energy, and has made it a home away from home ever since.
“I knew there was a connection there,” she said.
She returned in 1995 to study traditional Mongolian medicine, and then went back in 1997 with the UNDP, providing water sanitation and hygiene education to rural residents. In 2001, she began working on “Gobi Women’s Song” a film about nomadic herders in the Gobi Desert.
Her second film, “Ceremony,” came out last year. It features 11 years of interviews of Mongolian shamans, including footage of shaman ceremonies featuring reindeer herders. Both the Town Hall Theater and Marquis Theater in Middlebury screened “Ceremony.”
Thodal and Carey put the finishing touches on “Migration” this past January. Carey entered it into San Francisco’s Earth Day Film Festival and was thrilled to learn on April 23 that it had won an award.
“Migration” depicts the annual, 14-mile trek of a large family (around 25 members) of Dukha reindeer herders in the Hovsgol province of Mongolia, an agrarian territory of around 120,000 residents in the northern-most area of the Central Asia nation, near the Russian border. The mid-June trek is a two-day odyssey up a mountain to allow the reindeer — a vital source of income and food — to find more plentiful pastureland in colder temperatures, Carey explained. Reindeer, she noted, don’t do well in warmer climates.
“Some migrations go distance, but this one involves altitude,” Carey said, adding the climb culminates at around 8,000 feet. “It goes from taiga to tundra — where there are no trees.”
As one of the interviewees, named Tsetsegmaa, puts it in the film, “Reindeer get restless and begin to move on to other pastures. When they start moving, we follow.”A MONGOLIAN NOMADIC reindeer herder rides a reindeer in a still from Sas Carey’s award-winning documentary film. Courtesy photo
Sadly, recent years have seen many of the herders eschew their nomadic lifestyle to look for more conventional work in urban areas, Carey said. Two decades ago, the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator had roughly 600,000 residents. That has now climbed to 1.7 million, according to Carey.
This trend provided Carey with a sense of urgency to capture their story for generations to come.
Sadly, when she returned to Mongolia for a visit in 2013, she found that none of “stars’ of her film were nomads anymore.
“It just sort of showed me how the life is changing,” she said. “We are losing something that is very unique in the world.”
So Carey thought it important to renew her focus on filming the nomadic herders, in order keep their story alive.
“It would show the world how they are still living (as nomads), while a lot of others have stopped.”
Thodal visited Mongolia as a volunteer in 2009. He had helped Carey with tech projects in the past and quickly accepted her invitation to wield the camera in her latest film about Mongolia.
“I like to travel, and I like the technical challenge of (filmmaking),” said Thodal, an experienced animator of science movies.
The adventurous filmmakers kept pace with their subjects, whom they filmed in their day-to-day activities. Thodal shot scores of hours of footage of the nomads herding their reindeer, cooking their food, erecting and dismantling their tents, playing with their children, and brewing the omni-present reindeer milk tea.
All told, Carey and Thodal spent around three weeks with the nomads, earning their confidence and friendship. The herders eventually returned to their home base in August.
It was quite an experience for Thodal and Carey.
“It was below freezing just about every night,” Thodal remarked.
The pair marveled at the manner in which the nomads could find their bearings along mountainous, rolling terrain largely devoid of conspicuous landmarks.
Maps? Good luck.
“Nomads don’t use maps,” Thodal recounted. “They don’t use radios, maps, and they don’t even use clocks. But they know their way around. If they get lost, they just walk up to the top of a hill and look around.”
But some of them do have cell phones. Thodal joked about how they would scale a hill to get cell service and at the same time update their Facebook status.
Not everyone can get their bearings at the top of a Mongolian hill, however, so Thodal had to scour satellite imagery and topographical data to get a visual handle on the trek. He was also able to obtain some old, rudimentary Soviet-era maps of the area.
And the herd also helped out.
“We attached a GPS tracker to the reindeer train,” he said.
The filmmakers, with the aid of a translator, conducted many interesting interviews with the nomads. But of course it was all unscripted. Thodal found himself grabbing his camera at a moment’s notice.
“A lot of the time it was, ‘Oh my god, something’s happening,’ and just grab the camera and run,” Thodal said. “Sas has such a good connection with them that they have an understanding we can use the camera whenever we want. But absolutely nothing was staged. Things happened, we turned the camera on.”
“It was very experiential,” Carey said in agreement. “It’s all about putting the camera there, and they live their life — then coming back home and making something out of (the footage).”
And they certainly ended up with some good stuff. Smiling faces, wonderful hospitality, great physical effort, cultural traditions and family togetherness are all a part of “Migration.” A fascinating, almost haunting traditional shaman chant provides a musical complement to the scenes that unfold.
Since “Migration” is her third film, Carey won’t be able to enter it into this year’s Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival. But she’ll be shopping it to other festivals, a key avenue through which filmmakers find distributors for their work. In the meantime, folks can see the trailer for “Migration” online at https://vimeo.com/153638035.
As the Independent went to press, Carey was poised to make another trip to Mongolia, this time in search of woman shamans and to study the impact of tourism on nomads.
And yes, there could be another film in the works.
“I will see if there is another story that needs to be told,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
MIDDLEBURY’S SAS CAREY and Fred Thodal spent three weeks last summer filming a documentary on the annual migration of nomadic reindeer herders in Mongolia. The finished film, “Migration,” recently won an award at the San Francisco Earth Day Festival.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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