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 Mongolia with a “cast of thousands” look—and in the Mongolian language—the film is lush, spectacular, and reminiscent of a lost era of filmmaking.

The film has already played in Russia, Germany, Japan, in addition to a number of other countries, and went into limited release in the US June 6, with a broader release June 20. Check out the official website to see if it will be playing near you.

Courtesy of a local publicist, PtP Managing Editor Greg Wright had the chance to talk with Bodrov in a suite at a downtown Seattle hotel.

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?

On the set for MongolSergei Bodrov: Of course I am pleased that Mongol is being released in America; and my distributor, Picturehouse, is very enthusiastic about the film. Bob Berney came on board before the shoot. I gave him the script, and he asked about the language; and I said, “Mongolian. I want to make this movie about Genghis Kahn in the Mongolian language.” Bob was the man who released The Passion [while head of Newmarket Films], so he knows what he’s doing. For me, it was a very important decision to do this movie in Mongolian. It was proposed to me to do this movie in English; even now, I’m being asked to do it in English. But I wanted to do it right, and for me it was right to do it in Mongolian. It would have been a very different movie [in English]. I knew I wanted this to be an Asian film, and I wanted to have a lot of Mongolians in the movie; it would have been completely different. I am not sure it would have been so strong.

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 Ulan Bator prior to beginning the project, and then following that up by being sure to be in touch with the shamans in each of communities along the way. And the shaman in Ulan Bator said he was pleased that you’d chosen to do the right thing.

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—

SB: Lawrence of Arabia.

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—

SB: Yeah.

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 America to do workshops at Loyola eighteen years ago, to talk about my movies, and I was amazed that for the students, foreign movies were unknown territory. And I told them, “You know, you’ve missed a lot here.” And they came to know, after my talk and my experiences; they told me, “Yeah, it’s pretty interesting—even if it’s a foreign movie with subtitles.” But I think the situation has changed now. More and more students have knowledge of what’s been successful. But of course it’s changed with things like Crouching Tiger. To see that in Los Angeles with a full theater: kids, parents, grandkids. It was a huge success. Or after Begnini’s Life is Beautiful. Or the Chinese movie Hero. So I think it has changed, and more and more people are open now to watching foreign movies.

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.

SB: Russia lived for 250 years under Mongol rule, and is still blaming the Mongols today for all our problems. And they don’t know why they came. What did they need? What did Mongols need from Russia? Everything they needed was on the Steppes. What did they need to go to the North for, to the snows and the forests? It’s no place for the horses. Well, the Russians broke the law. And the law was very simple: don’t kill the messengers. He said, “Don’t kill my messengers. I’m sending ambassadors to talk with you about my proposals.” But they killed them because they didn’t want to talk with them. So they came, and the Russians were punished for 250 years. And his law is still working now—it’s called “diplomatic immunity.” People stopped killing ambassadors.