Aoluguya, Aoluguya is the first film in Gu Tao’s Ewenki Trilogy, a trilogy that takes a closer a look at the Ewenki, a disenfranchised ethnic minority originally from Inner Mongolia. Over the course of three films Gu Tao follows the lives of various characters in a small hunting camp on the Xingan mountains.
In this first film our hero is He Xie, one of the leading figures of the hunting camp. He tries to hold together a community by keeping it on its feet as the very ground they traditionally stand on gets eroded from beneath their very feet. Traditionally the Ewenki were hunters and trappers but now their guns have been taken away and hunting is forbidden. They used to live at one with nature in the mountains, but now they are being moved to specially constructed government camps. The only tradition they are left with is reindeer herding – but that barely helps them survive. The community is branded with a sense of loss, there are deaths in all the families, alcohol is the only way these handful of Ewenki can numb the pain as they helplessly watch the twilight grow around them…
To truly understand Aoluguya Aoluguya, we must first have some inkling of the conditions that created the film. As we have mentioned in other reviews, Gu Tao never started this project with the concrete aim of becoming a filmmaker or indeed making a film. His father, an ethnographer and photographer had worked in length with the Ewenki and Gu Tao was inspired to revisit the places his father had worked on after being reintroduced to his photographs. He started living with the Ewenki, joining in their day to day activities and documenting his life there with a small handheld camera that barely fit into the palm of his hand. During this period, he was touched by this way of life that was rapidly disappearing and, no doubt, the sadness that was left in its place. This inspired him to invest in better equipment and make more structured choices in what he would film.
Although the two films are in many ways quite similar, in comparison to The Last Moose of Aoluguya, Aoluguya Aoluguya feels less like a documentary and more like a document. Images of drunken fights mix with almost pastoral footage of reindeer and the traditional tents the Ewenki live in. True, the film is loosely centered on He Xie – one of the only living links Gu Tao was able to find to his father’s work: he is the son of one of his fathers’ contacts in the region – but more than He Xie himself, the film is by and large about the community. We meet a lot of the characters that are going to be central to his future films like Liu Xia (the central character of the second film of the trilogy, Yugo and His Father) and her brother Weija who is the central character of The Last Moose of Aoluguya. Arguments and violence linked to alcohol are rife. Many, many people have died – a lot of them due to alcohol – and all the survivors seem to be able to do to numb the pain is to drink some more…
One needs a dose or two of willpower to get through the first quarter of Aoluguya Aoluguya. The main reason for this is the fact that we are given the bare minimum as far as introductions and background go, and the rest is left up to us. You pretty much have to do what Gu Tao did and invest your time in the documentary. As you watch, you begin to build a picture. A picture made up of fleeting images begins to appear, almost at the corners of your consciousness. Weija, the boisterous drunk, comes up with terminology like “German Expressionism” and “Modigliani”. It later turns out he is a frustrated artist with a talent for painting. Liu Xia looks like a habitual drunk you would cross a street to avoid – but a whole different side to her character emerges when she is tending her dogs and her reindeer. He Xie looks like a bit of a bully, especially when he has had a drink or two, but then he takes out his harmonica and sings songs to lament the members of his family who have passed away wıth tears in his eyes. Aoluguya Aoluguya is in fact a wonderful portrait of a life that once was and people who could have been – but are now completely different. Gu Tao captures the life as it is, but also the sense of fading and change, along with the melancholy it causes.
While discussing the film, Gu Tao describes the Ewenki as accepting to a fault. They feel completely powerless in the face of the sweeping changes and being able to change anything is almost unthinkable. This is one of the reasons why the film remains by and large politically neutral and does not issue any kind of “call to arms” or even hint at a potential solution. Rather, it paints the picture as it is and leaves us to ponder what may possibly happen next – and whether there actually is anything that can be done about it.
The Chinese Visual Festival continues in London until 22nd May. For more information visit chinesevisualfestival.org.