Veins of the World sees Mongolian director Byambasuren Davaa, whose debut, The Story of the Weeping Camel, earned an Oscar nomination for best documentary, again turn her evocative, naturalistic lens on to the lives of nomadic tribes in her home country. It’s something of a pity that, having made its festival rounds, the film gets its release during the pandemic, as its arresting, expansive portraiture of Mongolian rural landscapes would have made an indelible impact on the big screen.
Right from the beginning, an alluringly green vista takes over the frame; the potency of the land is breathtaking. Nevertheless, amid this poetic lushness, barren patches slowly appear. Not only the fertile soil but also a traditional way of life is in danger of being eaten away. Shattering changes are seen through the eyes of 11-year-old Amra (Bat-Ireedui Batmunkh), who is especially close to his mechanic father, Erdene (Yalalt Namsrai); Erdene leads his fellow nomads in their resistance against the encroachments of mining companies. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes and Amra’s childlike innocence hardens into a resolute determination as he becomes a one-boy-army against the destructive forces of modern commerce.
With a location as awe-inspiring as the Gobi desert, there’s always a danger that the setting will overshadow the drama, but Batmunkh’s committed performance is an emotional anchor that keeps the film clear of maudlin abstraction. Though dealing with overexploitation on a giant scale – these mining operations have even emptied rivers – Veins of the World is more interested in documenting the rituals of nomadic life. Amra visits the holy shaman tree, which bears witness not only to the child’s familial trauma but also to the damage being wreaked daily on his ancestral land; this tenderness renders the desecration of the environment even more heartless and shocking. Though perhaps naive in its understanding of systematic exploitation, Veins of the World is intimate and sweeping all at once, and has at its core a sincerity that invites genuine empathy.
Veins of the World is available on 13 April on YourScreen.