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A Review of the Documentary

Herdsmen

Executive Producer Wei Bin. Producer Luo Ming. Director Chen Jianjun
A Co-Production of China Central Television and Xinjiang Grandscape Telecon. 2000. A 90-minute documentary in Kazak language with English subtitles. Distributed by Documentary Educational Resources, 101 Morse Street, Watertown, MA 02472. E-mail: docued@der.org.


The documentary begins as the nomadic Kazak family of Latay, his wife, Kulayxa, and their thirteen children, lamb-out their herd some 80 kilometers from the small town of Aktobek in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. We are gradually introduced to some of the children and extended family as, in May, this aul (a small village of yurts) moves from the lambing pasture to the spring (and also fall) pasture at Keylewtan, about 100 kilometers from Aktobek. About six weeks later they begin a near-week’s migration to the summer pasture in the high Tien Shan Mountains where they will remain until the cold days of September, when the reverse migration begins. The last scenes are at Aktobek, now covered with icy winter snow, as the sheep begin the last move of the yearly cycle to their winter grazing grounds some 120 kilometers away.

An ethnographic study of the little-known Turkic speaking nomads, the story has a very weak central theme with little conflict, few problems to resolve, and is focused around the family’s activities which, true to their way of life, are generally quite mundane. No doubt produced by the Chinese to highlight one of their more tenuous minorities, small subplots meant to introduce tension, are only rarely successful. Latay, and 13-year old son, Nuney, look for a camel that has been lost for two months. The camel is never found as the plot shifts to two young Kazaks whom Latay and Nuney help them pull a wagon loaded with wood from the River Ertis. The resilience of these Kazak youngsters is established as we see them wade thigh-deep in icy water; snow banks still lie along the river’s edge. Soon Latay is seen with a group of unidentified men who find a downed, pregnant horse that they pull to standing position, thus saving her life.

The scenes meant to be the most dramatic, are the most staged. The family moves out to spring pasture with a herd of cows and a nice bunch of Bactrian two-humped camels. They must cross a raging river. Cows are seen fighting rapids as they are swept away downstream. Some are pulled and pushed up a steep bank on the opposite side. In the next scene, we see cows milling along the sandy river’s edge. It then becomes apparent, as we also see truck tracks emerging from the riverbed, that these animals have crossed where the river is wide and shallow. Here the subtitle announces that after 48 hours, they have safely crossed the river although they lost five cows. Later, the sheep (never seen in the river crossing) are trailed up a rocky canyon pass, arriving at Keylewtan. A baby is nursed in her cradle before the families set up their yurts. During spring pasture, sheep are shorn, and the wool is sold to itinerate merchants.

The most dramatic and true-to-life moments are the long and arduous trek to summer pasture. As camels laden with disassembled yurts, the elongated herd of sheep, and the family on horseback (the baby in a blanket-covered cradle straddling the pommel of the saddle), cross a narrow bridge in great disrepair. Our breath is held as we see the raging white-water of the mountain river, swollen with spring melt, in the chasm below. The caravan winds through groves of Tien Shan pine, and traverses narrow, rocky ledges to reach the summit before dropping to Eday, the summer pasture that lies adjacent to glistening glaciers. This same route must be repeated in reverse when the cold rain and winds of September drive this small aul from its idyllic setting.

Arriving again at Keylewtan, the most heated exchange of the entire year takes place as Latay sells sheep to Han Chinese merchants. He thinks the sheep are not weighed correctly and want to see the scales. The Chinese refuse. The arguments get hotter and louder, although the sub-titles proclaim, “Let’s not argue.” Finally, there is an agreement, money is exchanged, and locked up by Latay’s wife after they have weighed their purchase of either rice or flour. (The scales are correct, they agree).

At Aktobek, winter has arrived and a crystalline snow swirls around them as, on horseback, Latay takes his oldest grandson to be blessed by an unidentified woman before he is circumcised. After arriving at the small house where the rite of passage will take place, the men gather to sacrifice a horse for the ritual meal served on this occasion. The relationship between the Kazak and the horse is beautifully illustrated, as Latay’s emotion is palpable when the sacrifice is completed. The circumcision rite is essential to illustrate the Kazaks freedom to practice their Islamic beliefs. Earlier, an Imam also said a prayer while a group of Kazak men prayed, and then gave a sermon on Goodness at the unexplained Corban Festival.

In this film of beautiful, ever-changing scenery, the first third feels contrived, and it is not until the aul reaches spring pasture that the natural rhythm of nomadism begins to shine through. Although it would seem that cows are part of the animal herd taken to spring pasture, we see only sheep (and this site may well be too high for cows). The Kazaks are made to appear very patriarchal, while in reality the society is egalitarian, with women playing a much stronger role than portrayed. The sub-titles are simplistic and frequently reveal very little information, some of which is misleading. However, with close attention we learn much about the nomadic Kazaks, one of the few remaining truly nomadic peoples who, in the twenty-first century, still practice a way of life that has been in existence for more than 2,500 years.

-Jeannine Davis-Kimball

October 2002