In 2003 director and writer Byambasuren Davaa gave us The Story of the Weeping Camel,,a beautifully constructed documentary based around a Mongolian nomadic family’s newest camel colt. In The Cave of the Yellow Dog, the setting is the same minus the camels and with a different Mongolian family, and Dayaa delivers another slice of humble cinéma vérité. While taking a walk, six-year-old Nansaa finds a little black-and-white spotted dog in a cave along the cliffs. She names him ‘Zochor’ (‘Spot’ in English) and takes him home with her. Only her father tells her to get rid of him because wild dogs can attack the sheep. When her father goes on a long trip to the city to sell some sheepskins, Nansaa keeps the little dog, who becomes her trusted companion. One day she loses sight of him in the tundra and, whilst searching for him, encounters an old nomad woman who tells her the legend of the cave of the yellow dog.
The child actors really are the centrepiece in Davaa’s films, their naivety pulling you along in the narrative and making you see the world through their eyes. During Nansaa’s conversations with her newfound best friend Zochor the dog, you become completely immersed in the child’s mindset. One of the most endearing scenes in the film occurs between Nansaa’s siblings, Babbayar and Nansalmaa. When Nansaa doesn’t come home one evening her mother is forced to go looking for her, entrusting her second eldest daughter to look after the home and more importantly Babbayar while she is gone. It is a scene that is nothing short of adorable while also revealing of Nansalmaa’s striking maturity. It is fascinating to see how bold and fearless the children are in Davaa’s Mongolian families, their parents trusting them to wander off and almost encouraging their independence – a far cry from our over-protective Western world. But The Cave of the Yellow Dog is not simply about the children and it also puts you in the position of the parents at different intervals. When Babbayar is accidentally left behind during the family move and almost falls prey to some blood-hungry vultures, the father’s desperate efforts to rescue his youngest child provoke unqualified sympathy in the audience.
The role of the ‘Yurt’ plays as highly in all of Dayaa’s films as it does in reality. Turkic for í¢â‚¬Å“dwelling placeí¢â‚¬Â or í¢â‚¬Å“homelandí¢â‚¬Â, a Yurt is a portable structure consisting of a circular wooden frame carrying a felt cover, and for the Mongolian families it is home. The importance of the Yurt is suggested in the film when the time comes for the family to move on and they start to gently deconstruct it in thoughtful silence. Such scenes are enough to entice any nature lover to explore this nomadic living so far removed from the city suit ant armies and unreachable property ladders of urban life. I remember Ewan McGregor in his Long Way Round documentary, commenting on Mongolia as he passes through on his motorbike, recalling it as a ‘breathtaking’ place that makes you feel a million miles away from civilization. Or rather, the civilization us Westerners are familiar with.
All this makes you realise how remote and untouched nomadic Mongolia really is, which gives an exotic charm to the film. Dayaa’s films paint a remarkably detailed picture of her motherland, from its culture and ancient Buddhist beliefs down to the organic working ethic among the natives. Mongolia was seeped in communism for years, its inhabitants systematically conditioned to view the Buddha Dharma as mere superstition, the opposite to all ideals of progress and modernity. But since 1990 Mongolia has adopted a democratic government that has brought religious and personal freedom to the people. They have been able to rediscover and once more enjoy the ancient way of life that had long defined their culture, before communists had taken control. The Mongolians’ independent spirit and joyful embrace of life are more than apparent on screen and Davaa brilliantly captures the beauty of nomadic Mogolian life. She would have been approaching her twenties when Mongolia was becoming a freer and more socially equal environment so no wonder she celebrates her country with such pride, wearing her heart on her silk sleeve.
It is easy to forget that The Cave is a documentary film because of Davaa’s unobtrusive direction and the natural performances of the nomadic family involved. You become utterly consumed in the storyline, the characters and the surroundings, almost as if you were working the camera yourself. The Weeping Camel was an original and deeply affecting film and it seemed unlikely that Davaa could equal it, but The Cave is more of the same, and just as good. With her second feature she confirms that she has truly created her own genre of documentary filmmaking.