Mongolia is faraway, barren and mostly unknown territory for us Westerners. Most of us know very little about it, except maybe a little trivia about Genghis Kahn. Rowan Lee Hartsuiker took the time to visit the place and document his findings, granting us a quick peek into a culture most of us didn't even know existed. The 30-minute documentary Chandmani Sum is the result.
I'm not much of a documentary fanatic myself. Not that I lack interest in the varied range of subjects (name it and there is probably of documentary on it), but I find the format very limiting. As part of the film medium it does very little with images and sound, making the audiovisual experience negligible. On top of that most documentaries prove very manipulative and subjective, not exactly when I have in mind when watching badly shot images with little to no artistic direction. I know this is not the case for all documentaries, but unless proven wrong I consider them the exceptions to the rule.
Chandmani Sum is clearly one of those exceptions. Hartsuiker traveled to Mongolia and stayed there for 6 months in a tiny village, spending time on getting to know the people and their customs. His camera observes them in their everyday lives, but rather than simply capturing life in Mongolia, his documentary tries to convey his experience over there. For that, he is not shy to experiment with all means necessary.
Visually Chandmani Sum is a true beauty. Completely presented in a light blue monochrome color, only rarely allowing other colors to come through, the documentary gives a very unique look at the desolate countryside of Mongolia. Hartsuiker has a great eye and knows to capture some magnificent scenes, giving them a rather daunting and otherworldly feeling. In some scenes the editing reminded me of Aronofski's Pi, with very quick and sharp cuts, creating a streak of chaos within the quiet and barren landscapes.
The soundtrack is almost completely composed of Mongolian) vocal music, but plays mostly like illbient. It calls a dark and moody atmosphere, creating a perfect flow with the images. In several short sequences the performers are visible themselves, demonstrating their vocal skills which is actually quite impressive to see. On top of that layer of sound Hartsuiker provided a couple short monologues. Their muffled appearance, trying to become part of the soundtrack but ultimately failing as the brain is too conditioned to make out the words, is probably my only real issue with this film. Of course this is only an issue for those who understand the Dutch language.
Hartsuiker explained that his main goal was to give people an image of Mongolia they would remember. I can only speak for myself, but with his documentary he surely achieved his goal. In a rather ironic twist all extra stylistic additions help in creating a more believable view on the Mongolian people and their lives. On top of that, the film's a blast to watch and to listen to.
Chandmani Sum is not your everyday documentary. It presents reality in a stylized way without losing any of its credibility. Hartsuiker succeeds in his mission, as he delivers a visually accomplished document with a superb soundtrack, transporting you to a world not quite like ours. And the best part? It's entirely free (legally that is), a quick look around the web will guide you to the source.