A Talk with Sergei Bodrov
Getting to Know Genghis
The epic Russian/German co-production Mongol tells the early story of the slaveboy Temudgin… who eventually becomes the leader the world knew as Genghis Kahn. The film was conceived and directed by veteran Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov, who found in Temudgin’s tale a parable of perseverance, principle, and the rule of law. Filmed on location in
The film has already played in
Courtesy of a local publicist, PtP Managing Editor Greg Wright had the chance to talk with Bodrov in a suite at a downtown
First off, I was very impressed by the film, and very much enjoyed it. One thing that struck me, though, considering the American film market and how its appetites differ for foreign films as opposed to domestic films: Mel Gibson produces The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto using “foreign” languages with subtitles, and so many people have such problems with that; and yet I don’t think anyone is going to have any problem seeing Mongol in Mongolian with subtitles. How does that feel for you, as a foreign filmmaker who is still quite familiar with the American market?
Sergei Bodrov: Of course I am pleased that Mongol is being released in
Yes, I agree. Very much so. That decision seems consistent with what you talked about in the film’s production notes, about being sure to visit the shaman in
SB: Yes; some people have asked me about the shamans, and for some people it’s kind of funny—[as if] I did it for publicity. But it’s not funny, because it’s the right thing to do, I was completely convinced. It was important for my crew, it was important for people around me. I am convinced that without that, it would have been no good. We had enough problems with the production; and if we had had additional problems with the cast, I’m sure it would have been more difficult.
I can imagine. The film reminded me so much of the classic epic films of the 1960s—David Lean’s film, for instance—
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
SB: A perfect example. I watched this movie many times, of course.
So just thinking of the logistical problems in making a film of that scope—you don’t need to pile on problems with ill will from the local communities, and that kind of thing. I really respect the approach you took with making the film, and I think it probably plays a large part in the success of the film. Still, for me—and this probably has as much to do with personal taste as anything—the rhythms of the film didn’t quite work for me. And I wonder, besides personal taste issue, how much of that has to do with differences in philosophy of filmmaking between traditional commercial American filmmaking and a European or even Russian approach.
SB: I do know that I could edit this movie differently, but again for me it was an approach where I feel I needed some meditation in the movie, I needed to have space to think, to not rush through the different cuts. Even now I feel at times it’s too rushed. It’s not your usual action movie. It’s kind of a different approach. So I feel I can afford to do it how I feel.
So it’s more a personal expression of your own tastes and your own objectives rather than any kind of East vs. West—
Well, that kind of short-circuits my follow-up question; but I guess not, maybe. I saw from your bio that you’ve taught classes at UCLA?
SB: Not teach. But I sometimes do workshops, for four days, three days, five days.
And in working with the students there, do you find that there is a difference in the way that American students are approaching filmmaking, as opposed to the workshops and teaching that you might do—
SB: I was first invited to
Yes; no doubt Crouching Tiger has played a huge role in that. You made an interesting remark in the production notes about why you were interested in telling the story of Genghis Kahn. You mentioned that while you were doing your preliminary reading, you were surprised to find out that his story was far more complex than most of the history books let on. And yet there’s kind of a problematic thing there. I very much enjoy seeing stories like this, where you get to learn more about who these men or women were, as people—and how they came to be who they were. And yet I’m sure there are going to be a number of people who are going to say: “Yeah; but do we need to get all sensitive and understanding about Genghis Kahn, or men like Genghis Kahn? Because after all, they were fairly ruthless dictators.”
SB: For me, I was kind of thinking, and would tell people: “Look. Don’t you think it’s kind of ignorant to judge people who lived eight hundred years ago, who were fighting on horses with swords, after what’s happened in the 20th Century?” It was the worst century, and the most inhuman. You had two world wars, the Holocaust, Nazi camps, Stalin’s camps, nukes, chemical weapons. It was insane and cruel, just the worst century in history. And you’re still just talking about the cruelty of the guy? I’m amazed at people and how they can be manipulated, can believe in clichés and stereotypes. Europeans, of course, think of Mongols as primitive and barbarians—and they couldn’t understand why the Mongols won. They want to blame anyone but themselves. It couldn’t be: “They won because we were weak; our spirits weren’t as strong; our commanders, our soldiers weren’t the best.” It was the enemies. They came by millions—which was [fabricated]. They killed everybody—which was also [fabricated]. It’s interesting with this guy, especially: history was written by his enemies. You have to be a little skeptical, and look at other sources and kind of guess what really happened. Nobody knows that he abandoned the image of the dictator and the brutal man; he abandoned torture in the 13th century. He said, “I will kill my enemies in the fight. I will punish, and I will execute if I think they are guilty. But I will not torture people.” And it was in his laws, basic Mongolian culture: don’t torture; don’t torture people; don’t torture animals. Don’t torture horses. Penalty? Punishment. Pretty interesting. And people used to torture each other: before him, after him, and still now. We’re debating: is it good to torture, or not good to torture? Let’s torture; it will be good for our country. It’s just insane.
I was kind of impressed at how relevant the lessons that Temudgin learned are to today.