Films, Mongolia

State of Dogs

A poetic film that captured Mongolia in an era of dramatic change

Warning: this film contains scenes of animal cruelty.

More than 25 years ago, State of Dogs, the centerpiece of the Mongolian trilogy by Belgian filmmaker and anthropologist Peter Brosens, was released. To mark the anniversary of the film's release, photographer and traveler Alexey Myslitsky, curator of independent film club projects, met in Ulaanbaatar with Turmunkh Dorjkhand, a Mongolian writer, director, and co-writer of City of the Steppes (1994) and State of Dogs (1998), and discussed with him the history of the films and Mongolia in an era of democratic change.

Alexey Myslitsky:How did you meet Peter Brosens?

Turmunkh Dorjkhand:A long time ago I interviewed Bernard Delville, chairman of the Mongolian—Belgian Friendship Association, and had already forgotten about it, when suddenly, one day, my home phone rang. A Belgian was on the line; he had gotten my number from somewhere and wanted to see me. It was Peter Brosens. We met him at the Ulan Bator restaurant. When I asked him how he got my phone number, he said he had found the fax we had exchanged with Delville, and it had my contact information. So, thanks to that fax alone, we met. 

АМ:What was Brosens doing in Mongolia?  

TD: Peter Brosens and Odo Halflants were traveling through Tibet and China with a television project and on their way back to Europe they stopped in Mongolia. I asked Peter, “What do you plan to do here?” He replied, “I don't know, I only had one dream, to visit Mongolia.” He and I became friends immediately. I invited him to my home and he appreciated my record collection. Our love of music united us—it was like a religion for both of us. 

Peter and Odo had a transit visa for only three days, and they asked me to help them extend it. We extended their visas for a month and immediately started shooting the movie. They had a Hi8 camera and a Boom microphone. We filmed everything without any script in Ulaanbaatar, in Choir, in khudonkhudonThe term khudon (Mong. khөdө) includes everything outside the city: steppes, deserts, mountain ranges, river and lake valleys—the whole diversity of Mongolian nature. A quarter of the population of modern Mongolia are nomads living in the expanses of the khudon.. Later we made the movie City of Steppes (1994) out of this material. 

Shooting City of Steppes

Left: Turmunkh Dorjkhand.
Right: Peter Brosens and Odo Halflants.

АМ:Did you already have experience filming before you met Brosens?  

TD:Yes, I already had a lot of experience in television at that time. In 1987, I got a job on Mongolian television as an assistant director, worked my way up to editor, and left the job in 1996, just as we were beginning work on the movie State of Dogs

АМ:What sort of programs have you been working on?  

TD:I worked as editor-in-chief and host of the program Tovch Toli . It was a copy of the Soviet program Before and After Midnight. Something similar to the program Vzglyad, only in the format of a TV magazine. Back then we talked a lot about art and western music that was just beginning to appear in Mongolia. We did music videos and political programs. We also made short films. I had the opportunity to work on the movie “Tears of the Lama” (“Lambugain Nulims”, directed by Tumur—Ochir — A.M.'s note), based on the work of the poet and writer Natsagdorj Dashdorj.

АМ:What movies did you two bond over?  

TD:On Tarkovsky, Sokurov, Parajanov. Peter is a Westerner. Of course, he was well versed in auteur cinema, he knew all the European film classics, and he opened me up to many good films.

АМ:Brosens was interested in the places the Russians left behind?

TD: Yes, Peter is an anthropologist by specialty, and he was interested in post-socialist places, military towns, and outlandish Soviet monuments. According to official data, up to 200,000 Soviet military personnel were stationed in Mongolia, according to rumors even over 500,000, up to 1 million. When Gorbachev signed the agreement with China, they received orders to leave Mongolia within twenty-four hours. The military had to urgently leave everything: apartments, furniture, pets, and service dogs. These dogs began to roam the cities and steppes, and it became a real disaster. We filmed them a lot while in Choir.

Shooting State of Dogs.

АМ:Is that what sparked the idea for the next State of Dogs movie? 

TD:After filming, Peter invited me to visit him in Belgium. We traveled for several days along the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow. On the train, Peter told me that he had read an article in The Mongol Messenger newspaper by journalist Nomin Lkhagvasuren about why there were many stray dogs in Mongolia. It said that there is a belief that dogs are reborn into humans after death, so they are treated in a special way: no one wants to kill dogs and no one touches their bodies after death. He decided that the legend of a dog being reborn as a human could be a good starting point for a new movie, and we started discussing the script. First on the train, then in Moscow and Belgium. 

In Belgium, we edited The City of the Steppes together, the first movie of the trilogytrilogyThe trilogy included documentary films: The City of the Steppes (1994), State of Dogs (1998) and Poets of Mongolia (1999)., and I started writing the script for State of Dogs. Peter came to Mongolia five times after that, and I went to Belgium two or three times. We met, developed the script, and looked for money. We had to raise a not-so-small budget for that time—about 700 thousand dollars. After three or four years, we found the whole amount. The filming of State of Dogs began in 1997. The team met twice: once in the winter and once in the summer. After that we spent five months editing the movie in Belgium, made four versions and a final edit. 

АМ:These movies caught Mongolia in a time of change.

TD:In the 90s, people felt abandoned: the Soviet regime was gone—something new was coming, but no one could figure out what it would be. Factories were closing one after another in the cities, the number of unemployed was growing rapidly, so that not only dogs became stray, but people as well. 

“The West” was something ghostly that people could only get an impression of from movies on VHS. This uncertainty and expectations were reflected in the trilogy. Of course, Belgium had democracy long before and they knew very well what capitalism was. Peter is a socialist in spirit; he knew that everything in the West was not as rosy as it seemed to us from afar. He's also an anthropologist and understands the nature of these things. I think we made a good tandem: Peter was from a Western democracy and I was from a post-socialist country. We each had our own view of the processes that were going on. In State of Dogs we were laying down a metaphor for that time: a dog dies and a new man is born. What would he be like? No one had any idea. 

АМ:The Mongolian trilogy depicts a country, a society, caught in the space between historical epochs. It seems to me that in State of Dogs you found a very successful approach: to show this picture through the eyes of the spirit, which is also in a borderline state between the world of the dead and the world of the living, between dog and man, in a space that is difficult to define. 

TD:It is also shamanistic and Buddhist ideas and worldview. One society is destroyed and another is created, the movie captured this moment. That's why we included legends about the dragon Rah, who dreams of devouring the sun, about the Black Heavenly Dog, who controls destinies, and other myths. 

In 2021, I rewatched this film in Amsterdam, at the IDFA festival, and I realized one important idea—cinema preserves time. It was a very interesting historical period that affected several generations of people. We were able to preserve it on film. 

Сinema preserves time. It was a very interesting historical period that affected several generations of people. We were able to preserve it on film 

АМ:How do you interpret the legend of Rah? Are we plunging into even darker times with each solar eclipse?

TD: We didn't plan to include the solar eclipse in our movie, but during the filming we heard news that it was about to happen and that it would be special. A lot of guests from abroad came, international TV companies came. Everyone was going to ErdenetErdenetThe second-largest city in Mongolia. and we went there too. But we couldn't find the right shot, and then I suggested that the team move to the town of Bulgan, which was not far away. I wanted the picture to look natural. We were lucky because we had a perfect view from there, while the weather in Erdenet was overcast.

We took pictures of the eclipse and started looking for a legend to go with them. I found a story about Rah, the dragon that returns every time to devour the sun and moon. But we didn't really focus on the myth. We just wanted to illustrate the arrival of the new and unknown, which everyone expects and which they have no control over. 

АМ:The movie City of Steppes begins with the legend of the beginning of the world, where the dimension of traditional life is presented as a timeless space of harmony of endless streams of air and water. And everything existed like that until the Soviets came and brought time, a substance that brought this primordial pastoral to death. Time appeared, history came along with it, and then what remains after them: tombstones, monuments, abandoned towns. What is your assessment of the impact of the Sovietization of the country on culture?

TD:The traditional Mongolian way of life is nomadic, people have lived this way for centuries. It is a calm, measured way of life. With the advent of Soviet power, people were forced to start living sedentary lives, to change their mentality and social structure. That's why our first movie is political—it is a reflection on these events: how the Mongolian man was affected by the forced change of lifestyle. In it, opera singers and jazz, military cities, the first businessmen and traders, are montaged with ancient monasteries, Mongolian national music, lamas, and villages. We deliberately tried to put it all together—for contrast. 

Songs from the State of Dogs soundtrack

АМ:The films of the trilogy explore the process of change in the country. I would like to clarify—the change of what? The resurrection of culture or are we talking about something else? Where is Mongolia now?

TD:It’s unclear. Now there is a strong stratification of society. Most of the population has become poorer, at the same time many oligarchs have appeared. I do not like capitalism. I lived in America and other Western countries for two years and realized for myself that it is not something that is close to my heart. The old Mongolian way of life was very good. And I think Mongolian socialism was different from the socialism of other countries. We had elements of democracy—everyone had everything equally, and there was peace of mind. But many things changed after the democratic revolution, everything was turned upside down. Now we find ourselves in a society where everything is measured by money, where greed prevails over other qualities. There is even something satanic in this: many bad human qualities are coming out. Of course, in the past people did not possess a lot of things, but nevertheless it was more peaceful.  

АМ:I would like to point out one of the features of this movie, which is the intersection of two worldviews: Mongolian and European. This is clearly visible in the camerawork. The same can be said about the soundtrack: the movie features Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Mongolian traditional music, and songs from the Soviet era. The movie seems to me to be a space where two cultures, East and West, meet. 

TD: Yes, the movie turned out to be a real interaction between the European and Mongolian teams. The directors were Mongolian and Belgian. We had two cameramen, Heikki Färm from Finland and Byamba Sakhya from Mongolia, a graduate of VGIK. We also had Belgian and Finnish sound designers with us. Together with Peter, we chose the music for the movie and included traditional Mongolian and Soviet songs, modern Finnish chorale, and avant-garde. 

I should say, Peter has great taste in music. He was always asking about music: what kind of songs, what are they singing about? For example, it was Peter who found the title song “Khavar boljee, khongor mini”(“The spring has come, my dear”- A.M.'s note), which is played in the credits. He heard it on the radio and asked me what it was about. I replied that it was a song about a spring day in Ulaanbaatar. So it became the title theme of the movie. For me, this kind of music was already familiar, but for him it all sounded new. 

With Mongolian border guards.

АМ:What do Belgian and Mongolian cinema have in common? 

TD:We discussed with Peter movies from different countries: the USA, India, England. We wondered what a Belgian-Mongolian movie, our joint work, could be like. Belgium has a lot of surrealist artists, and we also have a lot of legends and fairy tales with surrealist elements in Mongolia. So we found common ground in the aesthetics of surrealism, although it was not our goal to make a surrealist film.

АМ:One of the most surreal moments in the movie is the final dance.

TD:During the filming process, the question of how to end the movie remained open. It was clear that it had to end with a birth: the dog became a human being. But how to show it? In the end, we edited the birth scenes with a traditional acrobatic number—the White TārāWhite TārāTārā is a female diety common for many branches of Buddhism. White Tārā expresses maternal compassion and offers healing to beings who are hurt or wounded. dance. In both scenes there is a sense of mystery and the shift of the familiar. The twists and turns of the dancer's body look both painful and beautiful. There is beauty in childbirth, too, and physical pain. In general, there are many such contrasts in the movie: water and ice, sky and earth, cold and heat, life and death. Emotionally, these shots fit well together and successfully conclude the movie. 

АМ:There are scenes of dogs being shot in the movie.

TD: We found out that there was a dog hunter living near us, his name was Amraa. I went to him, begging him to be in our movie. He refused several times because he didn't want to spoil his reputation: killing dogs in Mongolia was considered reprehensible—like killing people.

During the Soviet era, Amraa worked in a fur cooperative and was a well-known hunter with state awards. But after the system collapsed, he, like everyone else, had to survive and take casual jobs. So he hid it, going hunting early in the morning, while the city slept and no one saw him. 

At that time, Ulaanbaatar was flooded with stray dogs, they were everywhere. Therefore, a semi-state company “Resource” was organized to shoot them. Several hunters were hired there, including Amraa. At the end of the shooting, the hunters had to cut off the noses of the dogs—they were paid according to the number of noses. Of course, we did not include such shots in the movie—it would have been too much. 

We came to Amraa several times, promised him a good fee, gave him a Japanese vacuum cleaner and a washing machine, and convinced him that the movie would be shot for Europe and that no one would see it in Mongolia. He finally agreed. Five times we traveled to the shoot together with a Finnish cameraman. Of course, it wasn't easy to shoot it. 

We just wanted to illustrate the arrival of the new and unknown, which everyone expects and which they have no control over

АМ:Who reads the voiceover?

TD:Damchaa Banzar, Honored Artist of Mongolia. Initially, Peter wanted to use an English voice-over and even recorded the first version with a BBC announcer. But I thought it sounded too “British,” too formulaic. I suggested that we do the voice-over in Mongolian, sent him a sample with Damchaa's voice, and Peter really liked it. I think his voice added texture to the movie.

АМ:The movie features poems by poet Galsansukh.

TD:Galsansukh Baatar was an aspiring young poet then, we were friends. He worked on the project as an assistant, a runner. After filming, we had some film left over, and we were looking for a way to use it. I suggested that Galsa read his poems. We chose several locations: an airport, a military museum, and a bus. Then, during the editing process, we realized that they perfectly complemented the structure of the film and gave it a different character. So the poem “I Need Seven Reasons to Die” became the prologue. 

I think Galsansukh was born a poet. There aren't many people like him in the world. All he does is write poetry. He has a small newspaper that generates income, and the rest of the time he just writes. He studied literature in Russia, in Irkutsk. 

АМ:How have people in Mongolia and around the world received the movie? 

TD:In different ways. The film was not widely distributed here, but there were many negative rumors surrounding it. People reproached me for showing Mongolia abroad in an unsightly way, calling it a “dog country.” My reputation was immediately shaken. In the rest of the world, the movie was well received. It went to 60-70 festivals, we won 23 awards. I traveled a lot with it: America, Czech Republic, Japan, Taiwan, Italy. The film was also shown in St. Petersburg, at the Message to Man festival, under the title “Dog's Fate.”

Peter Brosens, Hubert Sauper and Turmunkh Dorjkhand at Message to Man International Film Festival (1998).

АМ:What was the subsequent fate of the movie? 

TD:The movie had an unexpected sequel in popular culture. In New York, I had a brief encounter with the writer Garth Stein. We saw each other for only 40 minutes, but I managed to give him a copy of State of Dogs. After 6 or 7 years, I was told that a bestseller had come out in the US that was based on our movie. It was a novel called The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. He too liked the idea of a dog reincarnating into a human after death. The book was later made into a movie in Hollywood based on that novel.

A few years ago I published a novel in Mongolia called A, based on the movie, and this summer it should finally come out in English translation under the title State of Dogs

The interview and translation of the trilogy were prepared in collaboration with Manalsuren Bolor-Erdene.

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Alexey Myslitsky
Photographer, traveler, independent researcher and curator. Was born in Adygea, grew up in Western Siberia, and studied at the Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in the Film and Video program.
Turmunkh Dorjkhand
Journalist, screenwriter, director producer of numerous projects. Winner of 23 international film festival awards. Member of the Mongolian Association of Free Democratic Journalist’s. Was granted the American film scholarship in New York and a Fellows Grant from the Tehching Hsieh in 2001.