Mountain Patrol: Kekexili (2004)

Lesley Smith

Mountain Patrol: Kekexili charts one local moment in the global clash between capitalism and conservation.

Mountain Patrol: Kekexili

Director: Chuan Lu
Cast: Duo Bujie, Zhang Lei, Qi Liang, Xueying Zhao
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: National Geographic World Films
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2006-04-14 (Limited release)

In 2003, two young Chinese filmmakers traveled nearly three miles above sea level to the bleak, wind-scoured high desert plains of Kekexili in Tibet, one of the most isolated and inhospitable places on earth. There, battling the headaches, nausea, and dehydration of extreme altitude sickness and the frigid cold, director Lu Chuan, cinematographer Cao Yu, and a mixed professional-amateur cast forged an elegiac environmental thriller as pitiless as the landscape it inhabits.

Mountain Patrol: Kekexili charts one local moment in the global clash between capitalism and conservation. In the 1990s, a tiny group of Tibetan activists struggle to stop the poaching of the Tibetan antelope (chiru), whose high-priced wool is used for luxurious shahtoosh shawls, prized by Asian brides and Western couture divas alike, and costing between $2000-$8000. Based on the real-life Wild Yak Brigade, the former soldier Ri Tai (Duo Bujie) and his part-time vigilantes quarter thousands of square kilometers of mountain and desert in search of poachers they have no authority to arrest. The movie focuses this Sisyphean task through the eyes of a young, half-Tibetan Beijing journalist, Ga Yu (Zhang Lei), who turns up at their village looking for a story.

This is no urbane Western saga of protest, skullduggery, and corruption, a Greenpeace-style direct action, or a sentimentalized lost cause. This is deadly combat. For the poachers, predominantly Chinese, the Tibetan antelope promises riches attainable no other way: for Ri Tai and his men, conservation and nationalism coalesce in the chiru, a symbol of Tibetan independence amidst the encroaching homogenization of the Chinese state. Conservationists and poachers alike carry AK-47s and barrel battered jeeps across a landscape so barren that a minor breakdown or careless step equals death.

From its first moments, the film juxtaposes image and sound in lieu of explanation. Hundreds of antelope appear, but only as fresh corpses or skinned carcasses, fodder for vultures and the eroding wind and sand. Cao Yu's cinematography pits the humans, and their rackety, unreliable machines, against mountains and horizons bone-chilling in their scale and implacability.

Yet Lu Chuan and Cao Yu's fidelity to location and way of life also trace broad themes, recalling Akira Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala (1975) and Neils Gaup's Pathfinder (1987). When the patrollers rip off their trousers to rush through a river flowing equal parts of water and slush to chase poachers, the shock of the cold water is vividly apparent. When Ri Tai's party divides, then divides again, high in the mountains in the first blizzards of the fall, death seems as close as any human companion. The filming of such scenes landed both director and actors in hospital, frozen and altitude-sick.

The scenes themselves have pushed several American reviewers to compare Kekexili to U.S. westerns. Manohla Dargis, in the New York Times, for example, mentions both John Ford and Sergio Leone. However, Lu Chuan's film recalls more the nihilistic elegies, such as Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, in which a passionate loyalty to one's friends, dead or alive, merges with a single shared quest to drive the protagonist, and those who love him, toward a potentially fatal confrontation. The dominant image of the frontier under threat in each movie tightens the parallels between the two.

Ri Tai calls the plateau and its mountains Tibet's "last frontier," something he wishes to preserve as a marker of both personal identity and nationality. The fate of the protagonist and the frontier become entwined. His organization of the patrolling group attracts attention in China, as evidenced by Ga Yu's arrival. He may thus save one aspect of that frontier, its wildlife, only at the expense of the vestiges of Tibetan autonomy the chiru and its habitat symbolize, a threat paralleled in his own increasing isolation symbolizes as the patrol draws to its end.

Mountain Patrol: Kekexili testifies to the ubiquity of the frontier as an image of nationalist nostalgia, a space shaped by and shaping national identity as it is threatened and vanishing. In Tibet, the events on which the movie is based aroused enough Chinese indignation to both achieve Ri Tai's goal and realise his nightmare: the Chinese government moved further into the Tibetan frontier, as the administrator of the 45,000 square kilometer Kekexili nature reserve.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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