Tourtoo.com asked the creators of Nomads of Mongolia, Brandon Li and Ansley Sawyer, about story behind that amazing film.
Tell us more about your personal story (you mentioned you are nomads too). Why Mongolia?
I’ve been a nomad for about two years. I lived and worked in LA for many years and decided I wanted to get out and see the rest of the world. I hadn’t really traveled a whole lot internationally before, so making the leap was exciting and scary for me. I left a television job in reality TV and started doing commercials for the web instead, and my first clients were in Dubai. So right away I was working on the opposite side of the world. I then started wandering around and slowly making my way to other countries I had always wanted to see. Countries like Australia, Greece, Indonesia, and India were now a relatively short flight away, so I couldn’t resist going out and seeing them.
Mongolia is one of the least populated countries in the world, and it has unique and fascinating traditional cultures, so we couldn’t resist the challenge of going out there and capturing it. Mongolia is modernizing like the rest of the world, and their nomads are gradually moving to cities. So we felt it was important to film them while they still practice the traditional life.
I’ve been traveling on and off for 5-6 years in between jobs and school. I really can’t sit still. Once I finished university and post-grad theatre training, I took odd jobs working as a deckhand on private sailing yachts, singing in jazz clubs, and acting and producing in my theatre company in France and the USA. It’s hard to build a career as a producer, but an obsession with travel really makes the process much more difficult. I came across Brandon’s work on Vimeo last year, and I really admired how he made travel a central part of his lifestyle and workflow. So I messaged him, and we decided to collaborate. Since then, we’ve been working as a “digital nomad” team. I typically move from country to country every 3-4 weeks, sometimes accompanying Brandon on shoots, and sometimes working remotely if a particular place catches my interest.
Brandon asked me in August 2015 to find an interesting subject to film. I remembered reading somewhere about eagle hunters living in the mountains between Mongolia and Russia — they’re proud Kazakh nomads protecting their culture on the edge of the modern world. It sounded sort of akin to the way Brandon and I operate, and I was super intrigued by the challenge of organizing a shoot as far from “civilization” as humanly possible. So we decided to fly to Mongolia.
How hard was it? What problems did you have? What was special about the people and places you filmed?
Mongolia is one of the tougher places I’ve filmed for many reasons. First of all, it’s cold in the autumn. And the windy steppe makes it feel even colder. My hands were numb most days and my brain kind of stopped working after a while. Second, everything is far apart, and there aren’t many paved roads. We filmed three separate families, each of whom lived at least 3 hours apart by car. So it would take about half a day just to get to a new filming location, and we were usually driving over a rocky, hilly landscape and through streams. And communication was a challenge – we used an interpreter to talk to the nomads, and he did a great job. But I was trying to give really specific directions as I filmed, and the details sometimes got a bit muddled in the translation, slowing things down and sometimes sending people riding their horses off in the wrong direction. We just kind of rolled with it and tried to keep the show going no matter what.
We did our best to prepare, but Mongolia tests even the most experienced travelers. What happens when our jeep gets a flat tire in the middle of the desert? How can we charge our batteries at night with no electricity? Can we mount the GoPro on an eagle without getting scratched or bitten? What do we do when one of us gets (read: both of us) food poisoning?
Executing this production was like playing on expert mode, but the people we met made the whole experience worthwhile. I’ve never witnessed a people so singularly motivated to preserve their culture. The nomadic families took hospitality to a new level, making sure we had enough food, tea, and warm blankets to last us during our stay with them. My favorite moments were the simple ones: preparing milk tea with the women, or watching a toddler on his horse giggling as he rode circles around the ger. These people have a simple life, but I saw a profound happiness in that simplicity.
Tell us more about the crew and gear used.
It was Ansley, the interpreter, and myself. We shot on the Sony a7rii primarily, with some backup footage done by the Sony RX10ii and some GoPros. I stabilized the cam on a Nebula 4000 Lite gimbal. Our goal was to get as many angles as possible, and to get close to the action. I wanted to give the film the immersive feeling of a narrative film, rather than a distanced, documentary feeling. It’s a Western film, really. It just happens to be set in Mongolia.
It was obvious right off the bat that we would need a solid interpreter. Normally I’m pretty good at picking up languages, but there was no way I could learn more than a few phrases in Kazakh. Our guide/interpretor/translator Sabit became a crucial part of our team, driving us more than once for hours through the mountains and desert to visit and film with a nomadic family. He helped corral the entire community behind what we were there to learn about — who they are, and what they do.
Thanks a lot and good luck with your future films!