Co-directors Jessica Woodworth and Peter Brosens drama “Khadak” takes place in Mongolia. The film revolves around the epic story of Bagi, a young nomad confronted with his destiny to become a shaman. A plague strikes the animals and the nomads are forcibly relocated to desolate mining towns. Bagi saves the life of a beautiful coal thief, Zolzaya, and together they reveal the plague was a lie fabricated to eradicate nomadism. The film screened at the Sundance Film Festival‘s World Cinema Dramatic section last January and won the Luigi De Laurentiis Award at the 2006 Venice Film Festival. Woodworth took some time out to answer some questions for iW about their film. “Khadak” opened in limited release beginning Friday, October 12.
What attracted you to filmmaking and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I had launched myself into documentary filmmaking in the ’90s. I grabbed at every chance to work in the field: fixer, interpreter, location-scout, researcher, shooter. I was eager to travel, to speak other languages, to question all that I had learned, to crush time and again my assumptions and prejudices. A certain idealism propelled me towards stories that unveiled some sort of injustice. In 2001, I shot “The Virgin Diaries” in Morocco. The tale centered on my very close friend who was ill-fated to enter into a love-less marriage. In Morocco I faced perhaps every moral quandary that a documentary filmmaker could face. How to record the turmoil and the sorrow of a very dear friend was the greatest challenge of all. Along the way I had to pry into, to frame, to interpret, to simplify, to reduce the lives of others. The means was not worth the end. What followed within me was a fundamental–and totally unexpected–shift towards fiction filmmaking.
How did the idea for “Khadak” come about?
I had met [co-director] Peter Brosens in Mongolia while shooting “Urga Song,” my first documentary, in 1999. He was completing a Mongolia Trilogy comprised of “City of the Steppes,” “State of Dogs” and “Poets of Mongolia.” We married in Germany in 2000. Together we started researching a documentary about aviation and socialism in Mongolia. We both became uneasy about creating a 56-minute deliverable for public TV featuring these noble and faded pilots we were meeting. We both had very simply lost our will to make documentaries. So, we returned to Belgium from our three-month documentary research trip with the seed of “Khadak” already in mind.
What other stories would you like to explore as a filmmaker and what is your next project?
We are currently preparing to shoot our second fiction film, which, once again, is deeply rooted in reality–Andean reality this time. It features a war photographer, a virgin bride, a mercury spill, blindness, a broken statue, an incident in Baghdad. Many borders collapse within the story. Ultimately it is about sacrifice and redemption. It is called “Fragments of Grace” and most of it will be shot in the high Andes of Peru.
Filmmaking is arduous, slow, exhilarating, perilous emotionally and financially. You wake with it, you walk through your days with it, you carry it into slumber. I believe it must be that way. But you can only do such a mad thing as filmmaking if it is absolutely necessary. ‘Why’ is a simple question demanding a complex answer. It can only be answered in part. The most exalted, transcendent moments Peter and I have ever experienced have been watching certain moments in certain films. Neither of us practice any faith to speak of. To be able to author transcendent moments in cinema is the greatest achievement we can think of. That is our ambition.
How do you hope this story will resonate with audiences?
As I mentioned above, “Khadak” was born from a documentary research trip. We were floundering with the constraints intrinsic to documentary and came up with the core of a fictional story: a gifted boy struggles with his destiny but eventually makes the sky fall thus restoring balance in his land. We never strayed far from that initial idea. Resonating throughout the story are issues that in reality are enraging Mongolians. The influx of mining giants has destabilized the society. Mongolia’s mineral resources are vast but prospecting is tending to leave huge swathes of damaged ecosystem in its wake.
Desertification is slowly and steadily transforming land into an arid wasteland. Mongolian viewers understand the film in a deeper more literal sense than those unfamiliar with Mongolia. But the film is intended for all audiences. Even if some tangents of the story might not be understood on a rational level, if they are understood on an emotional level it is sufficient. The film is not a puzzle to be assembled nor is it a mystery to unravel. The film is better appreciated if it is approached as one approaches a painting, or sits down to hear music or watch dance. Viewers nowadays are so attuned to digesting films in a certain way. Resolutions are delivered. Plots are character-driven. Everything pays off in a tidy way. Well, we believe that retaining a degree of mystery is much closer to the way the world turns. It allows for space in one’s soul to experience a film in a highly subjective way.
How did the financing come together?
We financed it relatively easily. Belgian, Dutch and German public funds came into the project, as well as ARTE, tax shelter and minimum guarantees from a few distributors. Distribution is proving challenging since “Khadak” is a very unpredictable film. There is no target audience to speak of. It can be extremely powerful for young and old alike. It has been released in Belgium and Holland and will be soon released in Germany and Switzerland.
How did you go about casting for “Khadak?”
We held open castings for the boy and the girl and eventually screened over 500. We came upon Batzul Khayankhyarvaa at a rock concert and Tsetsegee Byambaa we found via a casting agent. Neither of them had attended a casting session. Neither had ever been in a film. We had to prepare them for the pressures of shooting. They were so stoic. They suffered all the extremities alongside us–physical and emotional. Indeed, it was cold. We were working in -35 Celsius (-30 F) so it was virtually impossible to do many takes of a shot. We were stunned and moved daily by their performances. He is an engineering student and she is a law student. The grandfather and the Shamaness are professionals who are both ‘Honored Artists of Mongolia’ and appeared in many Mongolian films during the socialist days.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
If your fear for financial instability and fear of taking risks are greater than your need to be a filmmaker then you probably should reconsider. Watch films from the ’60s and ’70s for inspiration. Be wary of formulas.