Dir: Martti Kaartinen, Niklas Kullstrom | Doc, 86′
Finnish linguist, explorer and diplomat G. J. Ramstedt (1873-1950) first published his memoirs as a radio series. And it’s easy to see how engaging his story would be without visuals. But narrated by Michael O’Flaherty (Vikings) and Frank Skog over the backdrop of visually arresting but often subversive contemporary footage it is a much more muscular experience and one that requires your constant attention and engagement. And there’s also a score to contend with. So it’s not a meditative or contemplative as you initially imagine.
Ramstedt first fetched up in Mongolia at the turn of the 20th century with the aim of mastering various Asian languages including Mongolian, Japanese, and Korean. He also wrote about Mongolian epic poetry and become the first Finnish chargé d’affaires in Japan where he also translated Japanese poetry.
Niklas Kullström and Martti Kaartinen have worked long and hard on this documentary and the structural solution they have arrived at to avoid historical visuals makes for demanding viewing. The film is full of stimulating wisdom and insight of the kind we’ve grown used to expecting from the ancient Chinese and Mongolians who saw the world from a completely different point of view than the one we are currently used to in the West. And that’s very refreshing, as it projects the past into the future. A language is not just a set of equivalent words but comes into being to serve a completely different experience in all kinds of ways and Ramstedt conveys this wisdom cleaned from his studies of poetry, religion and local folklore. Mongolian is a fricative language and has adapted itself to being heard over distances, where people communicated on horseback rather than in close or intimate indoor settings. So the language needs to be rely on loud and abrasive sounds in order to be heard.
Niklas Kullström and Martti Kaartinen’s film works best in reflecting the contemplative mores of the East, and illustrates this in a scene in a remote panoramic landscape of Mongolia where two strangers meet: “If you see a stranger on the steppe it is customary to step down from the horse and wait. For a half an hour you exchange courtesies. Then you may get to the point”. MT
BERGAMO FILM MEETING | 9-17 MARCH 2019