Saturday, May 08, 2010

Hope on the Steppe: The Horse Boy

During the era of the Stalinist-aligned Choibalsan regime, Mongolia’s Communist government subjugated all organized forms of religion. However, Shamanism survived in remote pockets of the Mongolian Steppe. Legalized after the democratic revolution, the Mongolia’s mystical practitioners represent an unlikely avenue of hope for the parents of a severely autistic child in director-cinematographer Michel Orion Scott’s The Horse Boy (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday as part of the current season of Independent Lens on PBS.

At two years old, Rupert Isaacson and Kristin Neff’s son Rowan is almost completely isolated socially. His verbal skills have not developed, while his tantrums have grown more pronounced. Unfortunately, he had proved resistant to every conventional pharmaceutical, dietary, and therapeutic treatment. He only responded to animals, particularly the horses of a nearby farm. Willing to try anything to reach his son, Isaacson sought out a form of the traditional healing that also incorporated horses: Mongolian Shamanism.

Despite her understandable reluctance, Isaacson convinces the equally concerned Neff to journey as a family to the remote Asian nation. Traveling from one shaman to another, Rowan often shows marked signs of improvement, only to lapse back just as quickly. Indeed, it would be an emotionally exhausting trip for both parents.

While Isaacson’s trek might sound like an ill-conceived act of desperation, but Scott clearly establishes the intensity of Rowan’s condition. As a result, viewers can well understand why his parents would resort to a Hail Mary pass, or perhaps an act of faith. However, at least in the broadcast cut, Horse offers little background or context on Mongolian Shamanistic practices. Neither does it provide much sense of the Mongolians as individuals, even though the young son of their guide played a considerable role drawing Rowan out of his shell, instead keeping the focus squarely on Rowan and his parents.

Though the capital city of Ulaanbaatar looks economically depressed and depressing, the steppe looks crisp and arresting through Scott’s lens. Well edited for broadcast, Horse never gets bogged down in Isaacson and Neff’s obvious anxieties and self-doubts. Regardless of the film’s “New Age” implications, the inherent family drama of Rowan’s story is undeniably compelling. One can well understand why it was recognized by the Heartland Film Institute with their Truly Moving Picture Award. It airs this coming Tuesday (5/11) on most PBS outlets.