Buddhist Beats: on the road with Mongolian Bling
What do we know about Mongolia? It's cold. People are nomads and live in large, round tents called yurts. Also something about rare wild horses. And indeed, this is – more or less – how independent documentary Mongolian Bling starts: out on the steppe, with footage of a man on horseback lassoing another horse.
But then we cut to a modern city – Ulaanbaatar – a wild contrast of grey, post-Soviet architecture interspersed with modern buildings and shops like anywhere else. Sure, a caption announces the outside temperature is minus 20-something Celsius, but the collection of young Mongolians we meet and get to know over the next 90 minutes only care about one thing: hip hop.
This is the startling premise of this surprisingly deep and detailed look at the lives of a bunch of people living near the top of the world. Mongolian Bling is an exercise in artful minimalism: there's no narration and barely a single word of English spoken. There's no map, a few minutes of archival footage, and only two "soundscapes" – where environmental sounds are edited together to create a hip-hop style beat – to break the flow. It's completely engrossing.
"I wanted to get into film," says director Benj Binks simply, "and this was a story I knew was waiting to be told."
The story, in this case, is the tale of three Mongolian hip-hop artists: the commercial Quiza, the grassroots Gee, and the surprising Gennie, who is a 20-something mother-of-one by day and respected and central figure in Ulaanbaatars' hip-hop underground by night. Orbiting around these three is a motley collection of producers, former rappers from the ‘90s, traditional Mongolian musicians, teenage wannabes and Gennie's slightly nonplussed husband.
Binks says, while working as a tour-guide in Mongolia, he heard hip-hop on the street. "Actually I saw these kids walking around in hip-hop gear. There was graffiti, and I heard the music being played and saw it in record shops. I went to gigs."
Back in Australia, Binks attended a film summer-school run by Nubar Ghazarian, who would later step up to be Mongolian Bling's producer, and sometime in 2005 he decided to return to Mongolia and begin shooting. He arrived in 2006.
"It was a steep learning curve," says Binks. "I had to be adaptable, to be sensitive to what was going on." He says he had to learn not to rush or push the story, but allow it to emerge by itself. In fact, what was supposed to be principal photography for the film was quickly downgraded to research.
"I started out asking around, then I was told I had to speak to this person, then to that person. There was a real story here to tell. A piece about Mongolian hip-hop could have been a two-minute novelty, but I didn't want that."
Going back for a second shoot not only blew out the amount of time Binks spent on the film (he says the whole project took seven years) but it also blew out the budget.
Producer Nubar Ghazarian says they were able to take advantage of a grant for young directors (35 or under) which won them $35,000 from the ABC, and an equal amount from Screen Australia.
"Benj made two unsuccessful pitches," says Ghazarian. "The problem is that while it is a film by an Australian director, it's not about an Australian issue or the Australian experience."
Binks says they suggested the film be about him in Mongolia, “but I really didn't want that". Another suggestion was for Binks to take an Australian rapper to Mongolia and see how he fit in, but again this went against the urge to keep the project from becoming a novelty piece.
"Eventually we were able to show an early cut, and then we got the funding very quickly," says Ghazarian. "We also gained some investors, and even though our Kickstarter wasn't funded, we enabled people to donate to us directly."
Binks and Ghazarian also offered "shares" in the film, by valuing it at $100,000 and offering 2000 half-shares for interested people to purchase. "We raised $50,000 that way," says Ghazarian.
The film ultimately cost around $200,000, which Ghazarian says for a 90-minute documentary shot overseas is extraordinarily cheap. "And we've nearly made all that back," says Binks proudly.
Binks and Ghazarian are currently selling the film to festivals around the world. They've placed it successfully in Warsaw and Mexico City, but still struggle to crack the US festival market.
"It's a hard sell," Ghazarian admits. "Most people don't know what to make of it."
What should we make of it then, this unusual film? Its main strength lies in the way it lets the story emerge organically from the experiences of its protagonists. Compared to the hyper-active and super-aggressive US hip-hop scene that spawned it, the Mongolian equivalent is much more laid-back, pragmatic, even fatalistic.
"It's the Buddhist tradition," says Binks. "These are humble, honest people." For them, being able to sing and make music at all is still a thing to be treasured. Binks drives that point home by including an interview with a former "Soviet Music Censor".
The decision to have no narration, and the gamble Binks takes in expecting the audience to read captions for a full 90 minutes while trying to take in this fascinating mix of harsh environment, real poverty and thriving modern city at the same time is a big one – but one that pays off.
Oh, and the round tent you see in all Mongolian films, even this one? It's not actually called a yurt. That's the Khazak word. Mongolians call it a ger.
The one-hour version of Mongolian Bling was shown on ABC 1 on November 25. You can also catch it on selected Cathay Pacific flights.
This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #149 (October-November 2012).