If there's one movie I'd say you must watch this year, it's Horse Tamer (or The Bounty Hunter of Mongolia as its been renamed for English-speaking audiences). The documentary film won the Grand Prize at the recent Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival (VIMFF) and is one of the best movies of any genre that I've ever seen.
It follows Shukhert, a nomadic Darhat horseman who makes his living by wrestling in local competitions and taming the wildest of the wild horses that roam the Mongolian taiga. Shukhert is like Clint Eastwood's character in the Spaghetti Westerns that launched his career—except that Shukhert isn't fictional, he's 100 per cent real.
In the unpatrolled northern border region of Mongolia, horse thieves from Russia raid the Mongolian herds to sell them as horsemeat, and Shukhert makes it his mission to protect the horses and retrieve those that are stolen. While Shukhert is locked in jail for beating a man he mistook for a horse thief, his own prize white stallion is ironically stolen in a raid. Once released, Shukhert sets off to track the thieves and get his horses back, making for a real-life thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.
Shukhert will blow you away. He makes Indiana Jones look like a Starbucks barista. With his cunning, strength and determination he gives us a glimpse of what it's like to be truly free, living a life of adventure and daring that inspires and intrigues.
After watching the film, I thought to myself, "This Shukhert character is absolutely amazing… but who managed to film all of this?" The gorgeous shots of the Mongolian taiga paired with the ability to document all of Shukhert's adventures as they unfold could only be captured by a truly unique director.
I eventually tracked down Hamid Sardar in Paris, France, and he was generous enough to chat with me about his film Horse Tamer. Sardar is an ethnographic filmmaker, photographer, scholar and explorer who earned his Ph.D. degree at Harvard University in Sanskrit & Tibetan Studies and participated in the National Geographic expedition that discovered the hidden falls of the Tsangpo River in Tibet. Most recently he has dedicated his time to exploring Mongolia and bringing awareness to the plight of her various nomadic traditions through his award-winning photography and films.
Horse Tamer is a gem of a film worthy of an Oscar, but it may be hard to find as it's still looking for distribution in North America. You need to hunt down this cinematic masterpiece like Sukhert tracks down horse thieves. Trust me, it'll be worth the effort.
In my interview with Hamid Sardar, the director reveals the process of creating Horse Tamer, tells us about his life's work and describes the mysticism and complexity of the Mongolian experience.
Caution: Spoilers ahead!
Shukhert, the masterful Darhat horseman and main subject of the film, is larger than life. His skill, charisma and flaws make for a fully fleshed out character who makes for a mesmerizing watch. How did you discover him?
As far as meeting up with Shukhert, it was actually he who found me. During a previous film project, I was riding into the taiga to film the impact of the ‘gold rush’ on a remote river valley. During a break on the trail, I was approached by Shukhert, who was himself returning after spending a month panning for gold. He joked, saying that he was stronger and more handsome than the old man guiding me at the time, and that I should come ride with him next time. Shukhert and I ran into each other over the next few years, and we became friends, sharing many trials and tribulations.
Growing up around horses all my life, I was impressed by the stamina of the Mongol breed. When I lived and worked in Mongolia for extended periods of time, initially as a university researcher and later as a filmmaker, I was tempted to buy a few horses. I’d ride them during my field expeditions and leave them in the care of local nomads when I was away. Over the years, I also lost many horses, either to wolves or thieves. Shukhert once helped me find one of my missing horses. So, I began toying with the idea of making a film about horse thieves in Mongolia. Shukhert was the obvious choice to carry my narrative and he was delighted to play his part in telling this story.
How did you convince Shukhert to allow you to follow him around and film his life? How long did you spend with Shukhert in making the film?
In Mongolia, after the collapse of Communism, stealing horses became a quick way to make money. The situation is like what was happening in the American Wild West over a century ago.
In many ways this film is, both aesthetically and thematically, reminiscent of the ‘Western’ genre. But it is rather an ‘Eastern,’ in the sense that we are now dealing with gangs from Russia and Mongolia who steal horses. Where the government is seen as being unable or unwilling to uphold the law, the law of the strongest prevails. So, local people like Shukhert must take things into their own hands. But, stealing horses here is part of a larger picture of environmental and cultural menace that looms over this pristine habitat called the taiga and Shukhert’s quest is also more than finding his horse. It’s a way of seeing how Mongols are forgetting the ancient wisdom of their land and their totemic connection to the horse as a ‘spirit-animal’. In some way, Shukhert’s missing horses can be allegorically interpreted as the loss of his soul. His expedition into the taiga is like the shaman’s flight into the underworld to recover that soul. Inwardly this reversal is felt as a conflict in Shukhert himself, as a human still being in a process of evolutionary transition, half-nomad and half-settled, half-bandit and half-bounty hunter.
You manage to film an incredible array of Shukhert's exploits—from taming horses, to wrestling for money, to hunting for horse thieves—and are able to thread together a brilliant story with all the footage. Were there any incidents with Shukhert that you wish you'd shot but weren't around for? Or that ended up on the cutting room floor?
Our team was small and mobile. It was not always possible to keep up with Shukhert on the trail. We were all on horseback for most of the time. Shukhert rode ahead with his dog, while I trailed behind with a Mongol camera assistant and two other horseman who pulled three pack horses with our supplies, tents and the drone.
Some scenes had to be re-enacted. For example, by the time we caught up with Shukhert, he’d already found his dead horse and had put the skull on the mountain, but I asked him to do it again. There were other incidents, however, where we had to improvise. When Shukhert suddenly decided to cruise down the valley on his skis, my assistant and I had no choice but to get off our horses and slide down after him on our butts while protecting the camera and lenses inside our jackets (see making of clips). There were definitely sequences that didn’t make it into the final cut, including an unbelievable hunting incident, which I will refrain from mentioning here, just to protect Shukhert.
There's one dramatic sequence where Shukhert beats a man and takes his horses, thinking the man had stolen them. He tells you (I assume you were behind the camera) to go away while he handles the men, but you still get that shot of Shukhert beating one of the men from a distance. Shukhert was not afraid to confront these men or other horse thieves, a potentially dangerous lot. Was there ever a time during the filming of the documentary where you felt your own life was at risk?
Travelling in the taiga is always dangerous because it is so remote and inaccessible. My Mongol assistant Jaggy, fell off the horse and broke two ribs, but he still had to ride for five days before he could get medical attention in town. Luckily, we had a few bottles of vodka left.
Shukhert is sent to jail for the beating, and when he gets out, he learns ironically that his own horses have been stolen to be sold as horse meat, which culminates in a dramatic hunt for the thieves. This sequence unfolds so serendipitously it seems almost scripted (though it's not), in particular when he makes a pair of skis and used the hair of his slain horse as the base, and then uses those skis to catch up to the thieves. How did you stay with Shukhert through the film as he moved so quickly through the landscape—on horseback or via another mode of transit? Was he accommodating in order for you to get all the shots you needed?
Many of the incidents I filmed, actually occurred months apart, such as the jail episode and the hunt for the missing stallion, discovering the slaughtered horses and finding the stallion. But in the edit, it was a production decision to create a sense of irony and urgency within a chronologically unfolding storyline. In other words, the filmed sequences are all authentic, but the timeline in which they are presented had to be creatively condensed. This is how I understand the difference to be between a reportage and a film. The journalist is theoretically bound to tell a story as it ‘happened’ in a given time and place, a documentary filmmaker is free to creatively mix and match real events to show what ‘happens’ in a culture.
You must have had a relatively light camera set up for the filming. What kind of equipment did you use and how big was your crew?
As far as equipment, I primarily used a Sony A7RIII with a mic mounted on the hot shoe, two Canon zooms and a few Zeiss primes. I never used a tripod or a stabilizer, and all shots were handheld. The largest piece of equipment we carried was a DJI Inspire 2 drone which fit into a big pelican case on the back of a horse.
What was your journey like in becoming a filmmaker, and how many films have you done? Any tips for those who want to pursue it as a career?
Over the last decade, I have been involved with a number of projects that have aimed to preserve the traditions of various nomadic communities in Mongolia. What survives of this nomadic culture provides us with vital clues to understanding our own past, with keys to see into our own human soul. In particular, I found here an imaginative resonance between man and animal that I had not encountered elsewhere in the world. In my vision, Mongol culture, is inconceivable without this totem-like connection to nature and its fabulous bestiary. This spiritual connection between man and animal became one of the guiding principles of my film and photography.
My first film, Reindeer People (2004), followed an old shaman and her relationship with a herd of reindeer that transport her tribe through a sacred forest animated by ancestral spirits. Balapan (2005), documented a Kazakh shepherd who transmits spiritual knowledge to his nephew through the prism of an eagle. Tracking the White Reindeer (2008) is a classic ‘coming of age’ story, a young hunter who sets out to find his family’s missing reindeer bull. In style, all of these films share an insulated, lyrical and timeless quality.
But, making films in Mongolia for over a decade, I also witnessed the country become rapidly divided between a modern industrial society and a traditional pastoral culture. With advances in telecommunications, we can no longer talk of the nomad steppe as being an isolated culture. Most nomads today own a mobile phone and almost every household possesses a satellite dish. As the country’s leaders ponder how to raise capital and attract investment to their landlocked country, the obvious choice they see before them is to auction out their natural resources to both local and foreign companies. A disproportionate number of mines have spread across the grasslands driving more nomads into the cities. Forsaking horse and pasture these new migrants enter crime-infested tent districts with no clean air or running water.
Living in Mongolia as a filmmaker, it became impossible for me to ignore the passage of time. While it is sometimes convenient to see the nomads as victims of forces beyond their control, one cannot help but also see them as part of the problem. With winter storms and wolves decimating their herds, the nomad is willing to pay any price to survive. Many herders inadvertently become a catalyst in the destruction of the very habitat they live in.
My film Taiga (2015) focused on the plight of a nomadic herder as the steppe undergoes rapid transformation in a mining economy. Through my protagonist, an old hunter, I saw how a nomad’s connection to nature and animals begins to dissolve. How he goes from being a part of nature to living outside of it and seeing it as a resource to be exploited for material gain.
Film making, for me, is always a precarious balance between science and art; of providing vital insight about a culture but grounded in a human story. But, in the history of documentary film there is a continuing debate about the impact we as film makers have on the people and cultures we film. There is a positivist notion that there is an objective truth about a culture to be documented, and to do so, the film maker has to tread as invisibly as possible. In my experience, however, I have become convinced of the very opposite. As a filmmaker, I seek the truth about people not just in their objective rituals and patterns of behaviour, but in engaging them in the actual creative process of making the film. Far from denying my agency as a film maker, I fully assume it.
Like Robert Flaherty in Nanook, I have developed a habit of inviting my protagonists to participate in telling their stories. Far from being the soft-spoken and polite observer I actively seek to engage my subjects into revealing their own origin myths and traditions. But time was not on Flaherty’s side. The culture he wished to document had all but disappeared and so he was compelled to recreate scenes. For me, the rituals I wish to document in Mongolia still exist in their genuine cultural context. My challenge is not to recreate, but to slip into these real occurrences and weave them together in a compelling story. Like Flaherty in Nanook, I like to involve my protagonists in the story telling process, but unlike Flaherty, I benefit from a cultural authenticity, that he did not.
The invention of DSLR cameras greatly facilitated my approach to film making. The new portable cameras could now record onto small memory cards rather than cumbersome tape. With a generator and a laptop, I was now able to edit my daily rushes in the field and to invite my protagonists to view and comment their own behaviour and performance during the shoot. This method allows me to reveal a natural aesthetic and intimacy to my stories, that would have otherwise been impossible. Like a psychoanalyst, I use the camera as a mirror to facilitate a form of a cultural introspection. There were times during the making of Taiga and Horse Tamer, where I couldn’t tell if I was the film maker or if my protagonists were directing the film. But in the process, my protagonists become part of the storytelling in ways classical ethnographic filmmaking would never allow.
Shukhert mentions at one time that as long as he has “a horse, a dog, and a rifle" he can comfortably survive. He is a man who obviously loves horses and his free life in Mongolia. What's the greatest lesson you learned from Shukhert?
One of the most important lessons I learned from Shukhert was the art of balance. For example, in wrestling bigger opponents, I always observed how Shukhert turned their power against them, tricking them into grabbing and pushing him, but suddenly turning around to trip them under their own weight. Outside the wrestling arena, he would also use this tack as a guiding principle in life. “Speed over force, wit over rage. This is the Mongol art of war,” he would always say.
At one point, Shukhert's mother tells him he should find a girl, get married and settle down. Has Shukhert settled down since the making of the film, or is he still wild and free—taming horses and chasing thieves?
He has plenty of girlfriends.
The border in the Darhat valley between Russia and Mongolia is unprotected and horse thieves freely cross the border. What is the future of the region, and the horses of the nomadic tribes there?
A large portion of the Hovsgol taiga (1.6 million hectares) was recently turned into what is known as the “Red Taiga Protected Area”. But protecting this large tract of forest means depriving many local goldminers, hunters and horse thieves of income. The newly appointed director of the protected area, along with a handful of rangers, has to enforce the ban, but without community-based solutions that can bring alternative sources of income to local people, protecting the Mongol taiga and the wild-roaming horses is not an easy venture.
What is your next project?
For my next project, I plan to return to Mongolia to work on a three-part series, in co-production with Arté (France). The project will focus on how Mongol nomads communicate with their animals through rituals, music and songs. In a rapidly changing world, these ancient bonding rituals between humans and animals remain some of the last forms of authentic cultural expression for these nomads. As an ethnographic film maker, I would like to document these rituals as human stories before they disappear. They are ancient keys that connect us to the nature and animals. A secret language that I would like to transmit through this trilogy.
Where and when will people in North America be able to watch Horse Tamer?
No plans. Would welcome ideas, introductions or recommendations to any distributors.
Watch the trailer to Horse Tamer (renamed The Bounty Hunter of Mongolia for English-speaking audiences) here: distribution.arte.tv