Ways of seeing: More than a film — a relationship


The documentary “Transition,”  which I directed, recently showed at the Hirschfield International Film Series at the college. My goal in making films through nonprofit Nomadicare is to support and preserve the traditional Mongolian nomadic life. Unlike Hollywood films, mine are not full of drama. They are full of life. The shooting method is called “fly on the wall.” That is, set up the camera to record and let life proceed. The story line is created from the raw footage by editing.

I met Khongoroo (pronounced Hungara), the protagonist, 15 years ago when she rode her reindeer into a Dukha reindeer herding settlement I was visiting. Soon after that, she became a part of the first group of teenagers from the settlement who was accepted into the university system in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Our nonprofit Nomadicare gave a small stipend to those first Dukha university students for books and clothes.

Khongoroo and I reunited each year. In post-production for the movie “Migration,” she translated from the Tuvan language into Mongolian so it could then be translated into English for sub-titles. When she received her medical degree, I gave her a stethoscope and blood-pressure cuff for a graduation present.

Two years after graduating in 2018, Khongoroo agreed to let our film crew follow her as a medical doctor from the city to the taiga and back. Through the eyes and heart of Khongoroo, we filmed the challenges of her life. One challenge was to decide whether to risk the health of her three-year old daughter in the polluted capital or leave her with her grandmother in the countryside where the air is clean.

When the film was nearly finished, I asked during an interview, “What would you do if you could do anything you want?”

“I would like to be a pediatric cardiologist.” A pediatrician and a cardiologist are both specialties, which require further training.

A local Vermont couple heard about her wish and donated the funds to Nomadicare for her first year of training. Khongoroo was incredibly touched, but unlike what happens in fairytales, real life is different. She was working and unable to go to school.

Most countryside people who move into the city live in a ger (yurt) district, a poor area of the city with close plots of land for a ger or house. With doctors’ salaries low in Mongolia, Khongoroo was no exception. As a ger dweller, she heated with coal, carried water from a pump house, and used an outhouse. It is minus 40 degrees in the winter.

Khongoroo’s work was essential for the pandemic, and the government offered doctors who served during the first year a low mortgage on an apartment. Khongoroo asked if the scholarship funds could be used for the down payment on it. The Vermont couple agreed, and Khongoroo, her husband, and daughter were able to move from the ger district to housing with modern conveniences. She told us she wasn’t ready to return to school last fall either since she was pregnant with her second child.

This past February, Khongoroo gave birth to a son and stayed home in their apartment to take care of him. In September she passed her entrance exam. On October first, she began as a pediatric resident — her tuition paid for with a work stipend. When she finishes, she will take the next step as a cardiology resident.

In real life, a relationship did not begin with the film or end at its conclusion. As Khongoroo follows her dream, I am privileged to continue following her.

Sas Carey writes about and films Mongolian life. Transition has received awards on five continents and will be shown on Vermont Public Broadcasting System on Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. For more information: [email protected]

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