Chinese Visual Festival – The Last Moose of Aoluguya – Review ****

ev_last_moose_web_100614

Now in its fifth year, The Chinese Visual Festival is one of the most unique and original festivals of London. It is divided into two sections,  Film Screenings and Art Exhibition, usually with a unifying theme. We were present at the gala and first screening of the festival on the 8th of May, at King’s College London, the festival’s host and partner for the past three years. Playing host to many extraordinary filmmakers from China, the festival shows not only their works but also gives ample opportunities for Q&A sessions, panels and discussions. One of their extraordinary guests is documentary filmmaker Gu Tao.

Gu Tao is best known for his trilogy of films on the Ewenki people. The Ewenki are one of the smallest and most disenfranchised minorities of China. Originally from inner Mongolia, they have been moved out of their traditional grounds into government constructed villages and banned from hunting, a traditional activity for them. The Ewenki now try to make out a living with their second traditional occupation – reindeer herding – while trying to find their place in a world that seems to constantly change before their eyes.

The Last Moose of Aoluguya is the third film of this trilogy. It follows the fate of Weija, once a traditional hunter and trapper, now a reindeer herder like most of the men in his village. Drink is a prevalent problem in Ewenki society. It is an especially prevalent problem for Weija who, if not tending to reindeer, is pretty much blind drunk. He has no plans, he has not consideration for his future, he just stumbles along, trying to pick out a route from day to day. And Gu Tao, along with his camera, follows him, without judging, without speculating but showing us with an unblinking gaze what the life of the Ewenki people has become …

One of the most interesting aspects of the Ewenki trilogy is that Gu Tao never started off making these films with the aim of becoming a filmmaker in the first place. Touched by the works of his father, who was a photographer, Gu Tao decided to revisit the Ewenki and began filming them in what would ultimately become a project that spanned eight years. This has clearly been a determining factor in the Ewenki trilogy’s style as the camera is often handheld, at times quite shaky and hazy, to the point of giving the impression of a home movie. But Gu Tao points out that this is less of an accident and more something he was actually aiming for, and he points out that the camera work is hazy because more often than not that was the way he himself saw the scenes around him. It is also, without a doubt, an accurate visual record of how Weija sees the world for most of the time…

725535

Weija is himself a fascinating character, and it is clear to see why he became the hero of his own documentary. He is mostly blind drunk, reminiscing or getting into arguments but occasionally, just occasionally we see him do something extraordinary – we see him paint. And his paintings are surprisingly accomplished for a perpetually drunk reindeer herder. The film itself leaves this aspect of Weija’s character a mystery, hinting at artistic tendencies throughout the trilogy but never exploring them fully. It is only during the panel discussion later that Gu Tao reveals that Weija’s elder sister was the first professional artist of Ewenki origin. She had gone to art school in Beijing and Weija had followed her to work with her and continue his education. This avenue was left unexplored when Weija’s sister passed away after an accident (partially linked to alcoholism). Greatly affected by this loss Weija abandoned all ambitions of becoming an artist. Thus we are left with glimmers and hints of an artist that may have been – but sadly never was.

I had thought about the title of the film in length, at one point even  wondering if it referred to an actual moose – they do feature heavily in the documentary. But during the same panel discussion Gu Tao reveals that this name came from a few lines he himself jotted down in his diary describing Weija himself during  – carefully avoiding full spoilers – what we can call a brief but intense stay on Hainan Island in southern China. This stay is without doubt slightly extreme in its distance but it is also a good symbol of where he sees the Ewenki – displaced both from their mountain homes and from their traditional ways of life, trying to make sense of the brave new world around them where familiar sights seem to be diminishing every day…

The-Last-Moose-of-Aoluguya

And yet, for such an emotionally powerful documentary, The Last Moose of Aoluguya is strangely neutral. It has no narration and provides only minimal background by way of intertitles when absolutely necessary. And, when asked, Gu Tao himself makes it very clear that he does not blame the government or western influences or modernity when it comes to the fate of the Ewenki. He seems to see it more as something that a lot of ethnic groups are suffering on a global scale, so he aims not to judge, but instead to provide a very clear and very honest description of Ewenki life. It is up to us to watch it and make of it what we will. The Last Moose of Aoluguya is imbued with a great sadness – craftily hidden in Weija’s drunken hunting yarns of the glory days – and a sense of inevitability as far as the way things are going are concerned. One can only hope it is wrong…

 

The Chinese Visual Festival is in London until 22nd May. For more information visit http://chinesevisualfestival.org/

A native of Istanbul, Turkey, Sedef moved to London three years ago to get her MA in Film Studies and never quite got round to going back home. As she once worked in a DVD company and watched films for a living, she started a personal blog (essiespeaks.blogspot.com) as a short answer to being constantly asked “watched anything interesting recently?” and loved blogging so much she just kept typing . She is the biggest Tarantino fan she knows and would be unable to choose a single film of his as a favourite.