The Cave of the Yellow Dog
Byambasuren Davaa is a city girl. She grew up in the city of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and later moved to Munich to study film. There, she found a 'better life'. She'd been told about the countryside of western Mongolia by her parents and grandparents, and as she became less and less convinced of the better life she'd found for herself, she went in search of something simpler. From that search, The Cave of the Yellow Dog was born.
Davaa was Oscar-nominated for her previous docudrama, The Story of the Weeping Camel, also set in Mongolia. That one took place in the Gobi Desert, in the south of the country. Most of the Mongolian heartland is steppes, but to the west are mountains, and that is where her ancestors hailed from. And that is where Yellow Dog is set.
The movie follows a small family of real herdspeople as they go about their daily lives. The oldest daughter Nansal, who is about six, discovers a stray dog in a cave and brings it home. Her parents don't want to keep it; she does. The story doesn't get much more complex than that. It's loosely scripted, mostly improvised.
Davaa saw the movie more as a chance to capture a disappearing way of life, as a chance for the family to tell the story of the nomadic way of life in their own words. Their lives are inconstant, based on the weather, on the sun and the wind. They farm sheep and live in a yurt (plain on the outside, vividly colored inside), which they dismantle and move regularly.
The landscape they occupy is breathtaking, and the cinematography amazing. In addition to showing a dying tradition, the movie provides shot after shot of the environment – dramatic rolling hills, scattered rocks, meandering rivers, endless greenery.
It is this land and its inhabitants (as well as our own) that Davaa asks us to respect. The title of the movie is based on a fable about reincarnation. According to Mongolian belief, dogs come back as humans. It is highly unlikely that humans will come back as humans, but we will come back as something. We always come back. Death is omnipresent, a part of nature. Life is constantly changing, ebbing and flowing, coming and going.
In making the movie, the filmmakers had to take account of this constant change. Wanting the story to be as authentic as possible, they couldn't make any plans, and were surprised by little gifts of the unexpected. For the first week, they couldn't work as the Western crew were all in bed with altitude sickness and diarrhea. Some days, the kids wouldn't cooperate, so they filmed clouds instead.
The end result, however, is a masterpiece. Visually, it gives viewers a chance to see Davaa's homeland, to live in it for a while. It's such a gentle tale, it almost drifts over you. But cinema shouldn't always hit you hard in the face, should it? – Roshan McArthur