Nomads can’t bet the farm, but they have livestock. Unfortunately, young Sukhbat’s family lost their herd to a sudden snap of winter foulness. Now their only hope to avoid ruin is winning a regional horse race. Growing up is hard, but so is every other aspect of life in Marta Minorowicz’s Zud (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Kino Polska at the BAM Cinematek.
The characters and settings are pure Mongolian, but this is a Polish film. Likewise, it certainly has the look and feel of an unscripted observational documentary, but it is in fact a fictional narrative. However, the difficulties facing Mongolia’s nomadic herders is certainly true enough. Presumably, the cast of steppe-based nomads could relate. Indeed, there is probably a good deal of inadvertent method acting going on in this film.
Sukhbat’s father is deeply in debt and the note is already past-due. The lending authorities will not give him anymore time, despite the loss of his cattle. He therefore places all his hopes on a promising young wild stallion he has just broken. Sukhbat will be the jockey and serve as the horse’s primary training, or at least that is what he is told. Alas, nothing he does is ever good enough for his micromanaging father, who is clearly feeling the pressure of their precarious situation.
This is one tough coming of age story. Minorowicz’s portrayal of nomadic life clearly suggests families are not held together by love but by a survival imperative. It certainly feels true to life, since it was shot on remote locations, employing nonprofessional local actors, seemingly playing thinly fictionalized analogs of themselves. She also films with an anthropologist’s eye, investing considerable time in many of the regular tasks and everyday rituals that have defined her characters’ lives.
Frankly, Minorowicz could have easily passed Zud off as a legit documentary if she wanted to, so give her credit for being forthright. Presumably, she also made the film she set out to make, so she and Kenneth McBride should want all their due credit for their screenplay. Yet, it is hard to imagine how scripted many of these scenes could have been.
Regardless of all that, as his namesake, Sukhbat Batsaikhan is a highly compelling young protagonist. You would assume he is really just going about his chores, heedless of the camera. However, Batsaikhan Budee is an even more impressive actor, because all of his anxiety and stress looks alarmingly real.
Zud is a quiet, immersive film, but it packs an arsenic-laced punch in the final minutes. Despite being a narrative, it will not be sufficiently narrative-driven for conventional viewers, but it absolutely lets the audience place themselves in lives that are radically different from our own. Recommended more as an experience than a film per se, Zud screens Friday night (9/21), as part of Kino Polska at BAM.