Monday, July 29, 2013

NEWS: How to film a music documentary in Mongolia

Originally posted on POPcity - Mar 20, 2013
by Lauren Knapp

Lauren Knapp with the band Mohanik

I’m standing in a monastery located in one of the most picturesque valleys the Mongolian steppe has to offer. It’s about 10:00 am and I’ve spent the morning filming a whole crew of young Mongolians set up a makeshift recording studio in the back courtyard of one of Mongolia’s oldest standing monasteries. The young rock band, Mohanik, is just about ready to start a full day of recording.

It’s the end of August, the end of summer, and the end of my stay in Mongolia. My work has all been leading toward this final event – Mohanik recording their completely unique album in a completely unique location. I’ve spent the last several months following this band of 23-year-olds as well as several others. Today’s shoot at the monastery is one of the last pieces I need.

I landed at Chinggis (Ghengis) Khan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia just after 3:00 a.m. on October 23, 2011. My mission: to make a documentary film about a new generation of urban Mongolians by way of their music.

This was going to be a great adventure. I was alone in Mongolia with only a few key phrases at my disposal. I had been able to find almost no information about the rock scene I was hoping to make a documentary film about. And I was still not entirely sure why I’d chosen to come to the world’s coldest capital city just before winter.

More fundamentally, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I set out to make a documentary film all alone, in a foreign language, in Mongolia.

I spent the winter, which could reach a disturbing negative 40 degrees at its worst, doing my preliminary research. I went to bars to check out bands, watched YouTube videos of Mongolian pop stars, and scheduled a whole slew of initial interviews.

While I couldn’t have told you exactly what I was hoping to find in Mongolia, I knew I was looking to understand the modern music scene, find musicians who were both talented and passionate, and highlight a trend that was unique to Mongolia.

I had my kit: a Canon 60D DSLR Camera, handheld audio recorder and lavalier microphone, tripod and single light I’d bought at a camera shop in Ulaanbaatar. It was all this one-woman band could carry. I created a team of kind-hearted volunteer translators (almost all University students). And by spring, I began interviewing music producers, rock stars, anthropologists, rappers and DJs. Each new person I met put me in contact with three others. Suddenly, the Mongolian rock scene was tangible and I had become a part of it.

By spring, I had discovered my theme. After years of mimicking Western bands, Mongolian musicians were now creating something all their own. They were meshing traditional sounds, costumes and instruments with rock and pop styles to create a truly new kind of music.

The young band Mohanik was one of the best examples of this.

At first glance, Mohanik was the most Americanized of the bands I’d come across. When I met them they were playing “Johnny B. Goode” at a bar and wearing leather jackets and sunglasses. Two of the members spoke impeccable English, their practice space was covered in American movie posters, and they almost always had the Street Fighter video game on pause, ready to play. When I was with Mohanik, I felt transported back to high school or college when being in a band was more than just making music.

And so, it was particularly surprising to me when they told me about their new material. They were amassing a new collection of tunes that were unwittingly bringing out a Mongolian part of them. They were suddenly singing about wolves, mountains and ancient battlefields. Their rhythms began to sound more like shamanic drumming. They found themselves playing only in the Mongolian pentatonic (five note) scale. As they explained to me, their Mongolian soul was simply emerging through the music.

By the end of summer, they had finished writing and were ready to record. But they would not settle for a studio. Instead, they wanted to record this album in a place that felt more Mongolian. It had to be outside. Nature is a huge part of Mongolian identity. It had to have history. But it also had to have electricity and be accessible from Ulaanbaatar.

They settled on the monastery and invited me to come with them to film it.

And so, a week before I had to leave the country, I hopped in a van with the crew and took the dark, bumpy ride to one of the most peaceful places on earth.

That final two-day shoot was the culmination of so much for me. Mohanik recording that album in that monastery was a pinnacle in a storyline I’d been following for months. It was essential to my film. But it was also a personal milestone. I found myself suddenly understanding jokes the crew was telling in Mongolian. The Mohanik boys had embraced me as a friend, not just some American filmmaker.

I had finally felt a sense of belonging in this terribly foreign country, just in time for me to leave.

Word List:
  • unique: very special or unusual
  • shoot: an occasion when somebody takes professional photographs for a particular purpose or makes a film/movie
  • trend: a general direction in which a situation is changing or developing
  • tangible: that can be clearly seen to exist
  • meshing: to fit together or match closely, especially in a way that works well; to make things fit together successfully
  • impeccable: without mistakes or faults
  • amassing: to collect something, especially in large quantities
  • unwittingly: without being aware of what you are doing or the situation that you are involved in
  • culmination: the highest point or end of something, usually happening after a long time
  • pinnacle: the most important or successful part of something
Pronunciation MP3:
= unique
= shoot
= trend
= tangible
= mesh
= impeccable
= amass
= unwittingly
= culmination
= pinnacle