The Herders of Mongun-Taiga

[the-herders-of-mongun-taiga--Film-list-image]
©DWS
52 minutes / Colour / 1989
Directed by
John Sheppard

Anthropologist Caroline Humphrey

Country of production United Kingdom

Series Disappearing World Series

The Tuvinians live deep inside the Soviet Union, at the very centre of Asia. Tuva is geographically closer to Peking than to Moscow. It only entered the USSR in 1944 and was closed to foreigners until 1988. The last British visitors were members of the Carruthers expedition in 1910–11. With 'glasnost', the new openness, the Disappearing World film crew was given permission to film the nomadic yak-herders of Mongun-Taiga, a rugged district on the border with Mongolia. Mongun-Taiga or 'sacred wilderness' is, even at its lowest point, 6.000 feet above sea level. Two huge mountains dominate the landscape and provide a stunning backdrop for the film, accompanied at times on the film sound track by the traditional throat singing. Arable farming is impossible and the inhabitants are dependent on the nomadic herding of yak, sheep, goats and horses. Families live alone or in groups of two to three felt tents (yurts). Following the seasons and the pastures they move camp several times each year. The film looks at the methods the herders use to protect their children from destructive spirits. A girl, dressed in a traditional frock, is revealed in the film to be a boy. This cross-dressing of the sexes continues until a child is three or four, when it is believed that its soul is more firmly attached to its body and not so easily stolen by spirits. Shamanic beliefs continue, despite state disapproval, and now include worship of the spirits of mountains, purification by the water of sacred springs, sacrifice, and the use of animals in exorcism, omens and divination. The opportunities for modern Soviet life which attract many young people are countered by the pull of an independent Mongolia, which is much closer to the Tuvinians in culture and way of life. Under Gorbachev, new systems of herding have been introduced which allow families to work for themselves as well as the state farms. The herders, however, still have reservations about the new ways. 'How are you doing with perestroika?' asks the daughter of Chugluur-Ool, a herder. 'Perestroika's doing all right,' he replies. Part of what makes this film interesting is the filmakers' admission of the material they were not able to obtain. Continually throughout the film, the narrator mentions the confusion and frustration the filmmakers felt. This gives a refreshing honesty to the film as a whole.
C. Humphrey, 1989. `Perestroika and the Pastoralists: The Example of Mongun-Taiga in Tuva ASSR.' Anthropology Today, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 6–10.

Language and subtitles English with English Subtitles

Region Central Asia and Far East

Country Russian Federation

Keywords Herding Nomads and Nomadism Shamans and Shamanism Gender Role and Identity Social Change