[URBANTH-L] REV: Butner on Haslund-Christensen, _The Wild East: Portrait of an Urban Nomad_

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Wed Jan 26 00:23:34 EST 2005

[Film Review x-posted from the ARD]

Haslund-Christensen, Michael
2002. _The Wild East: Portrait of an Urban Nomad_. New York: First
Run/Icarus Films.  1 VHS (54 min.) Mongolian; In English, Russian, and
Mongolian with English subtitles.

Reviewed 10 Jan 2005 by Tammy Butner <nibailey at yahoo.com>,
Independent Scholar (Westbrook, Maine, USA)

 ABSTRACT:    Set in the Mongolian capital of Ulaan Baatar, this
ethnographic film chronicles the daily lives of two friends, Jenya and
Sasha, as they attempt to find jobs in the newly changing economy. Following
them from one unrealized dream to the next, Haslund-Christensen offers the
viewer a glimpse of Mongolian life since the shift from socialism to

 In The Wild East, Haslund-Christiansen introduces the viewer to a Mongolia
with which few people are familiar - a changing country with a dramatically
shifting economy, one that is moving so quickly towards modernity that many
of its inhabitants are having a hard time keeping up. The film documents a
year in the lives of two longtime friends from Ulaan Baatar, Jenya and
Sasha, as they attempt to find a reliable source of income.
     Haslund-Christiansen presents a variety of issues, including national
and cultural identity, and cultural and economic change. Jenya is the son of
a Mongolian mother and a Mongolian/Russian father, and this mixed heritage
causes him to question his place in his own country. He states that
"half-Russians are between the two fires" and that he experienced
discrimination growing up because he is neither fully Chinese nor Russian.
Underscoring their mixed heritage, the family celebrates the New Year with
food and drink traditional to both Russia and Mongolia, and songs and toasts
are delivered in both languages. Jenya understands the advantages of
multiculturalism and wants his daughter to grow up speaking Mongolian,
Russian, and English so she will have more opportunity than he had.
     Midway through the film, the issue of ethnocentrism surfaces and the
Mongolian's dislike for the Chinese becomes obvious. Jenya and Sasha visit a
friend who begins complaining that he hates the Chinese so much that, even
if he finds a Chinese woman that is very beautiful, he would be repulsed by
her simply because she is Chinese. This leads to a discussion of why the
Mongolians dislike the Chinese and the Russians; in part this is because
they are dependent on these two nations for basic necessities such as food,
clothing, and fuel. The discussion leads to an introspective criticism of
how the Mongolians themselves are conducting their economic affairs; Jenya
states that the Mongolians are dependent because they mismanage their
livestock, ignore available minerals deposits, and fail to utilize farmland
properly. Haslund-Christensen also points out the struggle between national
loyalty and the desire for "Western" things; when Jenya and Sasha purchase
cigarettes, they opt for the imported Lucky Strikes, at three times the
price of Mongolian-made Chengis Khan cigarettes.
     Several dichotomies play into the lives of the two men. First, there is
the relationship between the modern city and the more traditional country.
Jenya discusses how everyone is moving into Ulaan Baatar from the country;
this seems true since the city is filled with heavy traffic and a hodgepodge
of tall apartment buildings and ramshackle homes. The city has a very modern
feel, with its cell phones, high-rise buildings, and new Japanese cars.
There is an air of industrialization as the camera pans across factories,
railways, and smokestacks, all in operation and pumping heat, steam, and
commerce throughout the city. City signs are posted in both Mongolian and
English indicating the cultural mix of the urban area.
     In contrast, the country remains traditional, where, people still raise
sheep to sell for profit in the city. The country folk arrive at the central
market with frozen sheep skins, slaughtered pigs, and wolf pelts, conveying
a sense of wildness in contrast to the civility of the city. When there is
too much snow, the people in the country are cut off from any direct access
to the outside community unless they travel by snowmobile. In their world,
the roadside signs are only in Mongolian.
     Presented next is the dichotomy between scientific technology and
Buddhist faith. Throughout the film, Jenya and Sasha use their business
knowledge and their grasp of modern technology to try to succeed in
business. Yet, when they are about to embark on a new and potentially
lucrative venture selling intestines to sausage makers, Jenya and Sasha go
to temple to buy sutras for courage and luck, even though Jenya states he is
not a believer. Here the viewer gets a glimpse of the Mongolia with which
people are most familiar - the scene of the Buddhist temple, filled with
chanting monks, spinning prayer wheels, and young children selling "karma
rice" to the worshipers to feed the hordes of pigeons around the temple
grounds. Later, when the intestine business fails, Jenya is very upset and
remarks with discouragement in his voice that even going to temple did not
     Perhaps the most strongly presented issues are the economic changes
that have occurred with the shift from socialism to capitalism. Jenya says
that even though he worked hard all summer he could not save enough money
for the winter. He must be able to save in order to make his dreams come
true. Throughout the film, Jenya speaks of the things to which he does not
have access. He laments that the baby's clothes are too small for her, that
even small toys are too expensive to purchase, and that milk powder for the
baby has become dear. Jenya's brother Dima is out of work so he watches the
baby while Jenya searches for employment and, before he leaves, Jenya
explains carefully how much milk powder should be used if the baby gets
hungry. Their mother reveals that sheep stomach was the only meat within her
price range and that, since the latest snowstorm, even stomach is not
available so the family is going without meat. The family's poverty and
desperation is palpable throughout the film, as Jenya and Sasha become more
discouraged with each failed business venture.
     This excellent film could be used to depict how a changing economy
shapes peoples' lives. It also presents a view of Mongolia that is very
different from the traditional picture of nomadic animal herders on
snow-covered plains. We see that Mongolians struggles with many of the same
problems as others around the world. Haslund-Christiansen not only
illustrates contemporary problems of economic and cultural change, he has
produced a film that appeals to the senses, engaging the viewer from
beginning to end.

To cite this review, the American Anthropological Association recommends the
following style:

Butner, Tammy
2005 Review of The Wild East: Portrait of an Urban Nomad. Anthropology
Review Database. January 10. Electronic document.
http://wings.buffalo.edu/ARD/showme.cgi?keycode=2228 .

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