Nomads Of Mongolia

LA Film-Maker Travels To Remote Mongolia To Film A Resilient And Enduring Nomadic Culture

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“The project started with me asking my producer, Ansley, to find me the coolest thing in the world to film. She returned with information about the Kazakh Eagle Hunters, and I was immediately fascinated.”

After a month of working out the logistics of how to get there and who exactly to film, Brandon Li was soon jet-setting off to endure sub-freezing temperatures, cameras strapped to a soaring eagle, and horses that flash like lightning across an open desert plane, commanded by the intimidating authority of the nomadic people. The resulting Nomads of Mongolia is his most adventurous, challenging and extraordinary filmic endeavour yet.

Brandon began making films even before he attended film school at the North Carolina School of the Arts. After graduating, he began work on the docu-reality TV show True Life for MTV, before moving into editing and production. He then realised that travel videos were his true passion. It’s not difficult to see how this fervour comes across in Nomads, where fierce, virulent film-making meets hyper-real audio production, resulting in a larger-than-life aesthetic.

He spent almost a month living with the nomadic Kazakh people of Mongolia, filming in conditions that would often make it difficult to both operate his camera and direct his nomadic subjects. “It was slow-going because the Kazakhs spoke no English,” he tells us. “Every direction had to go through my translator, and occasionally there would be mix-ups in the translation and just general confusion.”

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This remarkable feat of filming is compelling, tense and exciting throughout, with breathtaking wide-angle camera shots. At one moment the camera lingers upon the attentive face of a nomadic hunter, at another moment we are flying across the intrepid terrain.

We wanted to find out more, so caught up with Brandon for a chat:

The Plus: Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into film?
Brandon Li:
I always wanted to make films since I was a kid, and I’ve always been a director/shooter/editor. I grew up in the USA and went to film school at the North Carolina School of the Arts. I was usually my own camera operator and editor. I then got more serious about my travel projects and started taking work overseas doing commercials.

TP: How did you fund Nomads of Mongolia?
Nomads was largely self-funded, but I did have some help from, a travel and food website. I also got some assistance from National Geographic. But even with this help the film was a large financial gamble for me. I had to pay for my producer and myself to fly to Mongolia and live there for almost a month, and had to pay our translator and driver. Plus I bought a few new cameras.

TP: What inspired the trip?
Their culture is disappearing due to the urbanization of Mongolia, and the desertification of their land due to climate change. So I saw this as an opportunity to make a tribute to them while they are still around.

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TP: What was your style of directing?
For most of my travel films I’ve tried to interact minimally with my subjects so I could get the most natural-looking footage. For this project I wanted a more narrative-type film, so I had to control things more. The activities I was filming were pretty complicated, so in order to make sure I had all the shots I needed I had to do some pretty specific direction. I was directing people who had never acted before. It was sometimes difficult to get them to not look at the camera, or do a second or third take. And since I was filming in a very free-flowing, wide-angle style, there was little room to hide my translator from the shot. Sometimes he would be hiding in the bushes shouting translations as I ran around with the camera.

tug of war
TP: In just a few weeks living with the nomadic Kazakh people, what did you learn from them?
The main thing I learned is that I am nowhere near as tough as these people. Mongolia is no joke. The weather is harsh, the terrain is rough, and the people who live there are strong. I would be freezing wearing three layers of clothing, and then I would see some kid wearing a light jacket and eating ice cream. The eagle hunters generally do their hunting in the winter, so they’re used to riding their horses through the snow in sub-zero temperatures for hours or days at a time in search of wild game. They’re just amazingly resilient people.

TP: What was the most challenging aspect of filming out there?
Every aspect of filming this was difficult, from communicating with the actors to keeping the camera steady or keeping batteries charged without an electricity source. But if I had to pick a single thing, it would probably be the cold. I was spending long days exposed to the wind and cold of the Steppe, and after a while I was so numb in my hands that I couldn’t tell if I was pressing the right buttons on the camera.

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TP: At around 5:10-11 there’s an amazing shot where the camera seems to fly with the eagle, as if it’s attached to it. How did you do this?
We bought a special “eagle backpack”, a little harness that can hold a tiny camera, and fitted it to the belly of the eagle with a GoPro attached. We then launched the eagle a few times wearing the camera. Then we removed it and shot the same actions from different angles with the other cameras.

TP: Max LL wrote the original score for the film. What sort of discussions did you have with him to come up with the final piece? Or were the ideas entirely his?
The concept behind the music was that this film is a kind of post-modern Western with Asian influences. Max did an amazing job of interpreting that into something that was timeless yet hip. I didn’t ask him to change much from his initial drafts; he just nailed the sound I was seeking.

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TP: Post-production: what decisions did you make to affect the mood of the film? And how long did the editing process take?
The initial edit only took me a few days to edit because I had shot everything in a pretty organized manner. I did a whole lot of work on the sound, however, and that took me another full week. Almost every sound in this film is re-created in post with sound effects. This was partially because I lacked the extra crew to record proper sound on-set, and partially because I like to create a hyper-real feeling with the audio in my films. I wanted the galloping horses to sound like thunder; I wanted the eagle hunters’ yells to echo through the valley. I like to create a sound palette that reflects not only the action on-screen, but the mood of the scene as well.

TP: Do you hope to go back there to make a longer or different film about their livelihoods?
I would absolutely return to Mongolia in the future, but if I do a longer project I would want to have a bigger crew and more financial support. Filming the eagle hunters is a challenging endeavour and I would want to have the resources to do it right.

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