Mongolian-born director Byambasuren Davaa’s films examine the lifeways of an older Mongolia, effortlessly blending natural and cultural themes. Travelling to Germany in 2000 to study at the Munich Academy of Television and Film, Davaa won international recognition when her student project, The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. Her new movie, The Cave of the Yellow Dog (which is part of her graduating thesis), has just been released in the U.S. This story focuses on a nomadic family and a stray dog who enters their lives.
Bark’s Cameron Woo recently had an opportunity to conduct a transoceanic conversation with Ms. Byambasuren.
Bark: Your film deals with cultural changes, traditional life versus modern life. Can you tell us about some of the changes that Mongolian people—particularly nomads—face?
Byambasuren Davaa: Like everyone else, they live in global times. There’s hardly a family who doesn’t own a television or other electronic device. As a result, instead of parents reading or telling their children stories during the long, lonely evenings, families are watching television or listening to CDs.
Bark: What is the meaning of the fable of the yellow dog?
Davaa: It’s about coming into the world and leaving it, essentially, about reincarnation.
Bark: Is there a spiritual relationship between dogs and humans in Mongolia?
Davaa: Mongolians believe in reincarnation, and that dogs are reborn as humans. That’s why there’s such a strong bond between people and dogs.
Bark: How much time did you spend with the Batchuluun family before you started shooting the film?
Davaa: I went to Mongolia in April 2004 and spent two weeks searching for a family for the film. When I found the Batchuluuns, we spent two days together, and it was clear to me that they were exactly the people I was looking for. Then I went back to Germany and returned with my crew in mid-June and spent another week with them prior to shooting.
Bark: Working from a script and filming a documentary seem to require two kinds of filmmaking techniques. In Cave of the Yellow Dog, what percentage of the scenes were scripted and what percentage were not?
Davaa: The ratio was about 50/50; we knew what sort of story we wanted to tell—basically, that of the dog and the children —but we didn’t know exactly how it would be executed. We started with an outline.
Bark: Did the family have to learn lines?
Davaa: No. The family is very traditional and it really wasn’t possible to tell them what to say.
Bark: Where did you find Zochor, the dog?
Davaa: She was a city dog, a mutt; we found her in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Dogs’ emotions show up in their eyes, so we needed a light-colored dog—dark fur on the face would make emotion harder to film. We also needed two identical dogs, in case something happened to one of them during filming. We found two three-month-old puppies who we were told had the same mother. One had a spot on its back, one didn’t. Worst-case scenario, we figured we could spray on a spot. As it turned out, one grew tall and the other grew long. Both dogs were given shots and cared for, but we used the same dog (the tall one) throughout the filming.
Bark: Did a professional trainer work with Zochor?
Davaa: No, no trainer. In the beginning, she was being fed by everyone; everyone was giving her little treats here and there. Then we realized that wasn’t such a good thing, and selected just one person to feed her and give her the daily attention she needed. She’s a very clever dog—it was sometimes a lot easier to work with her than with the kids.
Bark: Did the little girl, Nansal, have time to get to know Zochor? Was there time for them to develop a relationship before filming began?
Davaa: Nansal met Zochor for the first time when she found her in the cave as the movie was being filmed. We wanted to get the child’s natural reaction—would she like the puppy or would she be afraid of her? Actually, none of the family met Zochor until shooting was in progress.
Bark: Did Nansal and her family know that they were going to encounter a dog?
Davaa: Yes, they were told about it. But when Nansal went into the cave, I don’t believe she knew the dog was in there. Bark: What happened to Zochor when the film was completed?
Davaa: The family kept her; in fact, I spoke to them recently and learned that they are training Zochor to watch the sheep, which she’ll soon be doing on her own.