2011 Student-Faculty Fellows: DePauw University
Mentor: Sherry Jenq–yunn Mou
Students: Betty Jin Jin Cao, Christopher Granger, Tavian Lucas, Stefan O’Neil, Seth Tsui
A Disappearing Legacy and an Emerging Perspective:
The Sound and Scenery of the Inner Mongolian Steppe
It is not often that one gets an opportunity to initiate and introduce students to a totally alien topic and see almost instant results. This trip was a very pleasant experience. Only one of the five students in the research group was in any way familiar with Mongolian culture (he was writing his senior thesis on Chenghis Khan when he applied for the fellowship); the other four came on board with no particular interest in or knowledge about Inner Mongolia. Today, less than a year since we first met to discuss the proposal, all five are keenly aware of some of the most contested issues concerning Inner Mongolia. Our research focused upon the creation of a one hour documentary film on current Mongolian life in Inner Mongolia drawn from 60+ hours of footage we took during a month-long stay in China and Mongolia. Although the film only begins to ask questions that we formed through our short, but close, contact with Mongolian culture, it carefully considers how people get along with one another and with nature.
Betty Jin Jin Cao
Each individual in our research group had specific tasks as we worked as a team to move our project forward. My primary focus was on Mongolian food so I paid close attention to the ingredients utilized and process of preparing Mongolian cuisine. Aside from doing this, my fluent Mandarin Chinese enabled me to assist the group with oral translations and the translation of interview transcripts. One of my future goals is to research gender roles in rural China to determine how this connects to Chinaâ€™s historical portrayal of women. Through the film we jointly made, I realize the power of storytelling and will be creating my own film documenting the perceptions regarding romantic love of Queer Asian Pacific Americans.
I graduated from DePauw University with an East Asian Studies major just before leaving to participate in this research experience and my senior thesis focused upon Mongolian culture. As a consequence, this experience was extremely meaningful to me. We witnessed firsthand the cultural differences between ethnic Mongols and Chinese in the Inner Mongolian region and shot footage of the culture and the lifestyles of people living there. The documentary we produced incorporates the voices of everyday people, scholars, and representatives of the government.
When I reflect on travelling to Hohhot, Dongshen and the Ordos, the moments I most appreciate are those in which we are simply conversing with Mongols about their personal lives. There are certain things we all do as people focused around eating, sleeping, and communicating one with another, and our culture defines how this is done. Witnessing Inner Mongolian culture has inspired me as a filmmaker on an individual level. It has also furthered my appreciation for Mongol culture and the importance of each individual in helping another understand oneâ€™s culture, people, and history. In preparing to make our film, we anticipated a lot of scenarios we would certainly desire to film, but quickly came to realize many of these rituals, such as cutting hair ceremonies, locking-in ceremonies, and lamas performing rituals are now seldom practiced. We came to realize that what we had idealized was no longer the reality, but the reality we found was just as appealing if not more.
Our trip to Inner Mongolia marked the first time I had ever been to China and the first time I had ever worked on filming a documentary. Filming the documentary was an intense experience: we collected over sixty hours of footage in just over a month. This meant constant on the spot decision-making and consensus building whether in the context of an interview or deciding where to stop and what to film next. We were exhausted at the end of each day, but it made for the most memorable month of my life. My main contribution to the production was to plan the storyboard in full detail and write the narrative. Writing the narrative was surprisingly challenging as one considered a set of questions to guide the choice of interview clips, which were then assembled into a sequence of scenes for the documentary. Once the narrative was recorded and the exact sequence of documentary scenes were agreed upon, the process of editing together footage, interview clips, and narrative followed in order to produce the final film.
In developing our documentary on contemporary Inner Mongolia, we met incredibly interesting people from a famous Mongol documentary filmmaker, to a fascinating Ordos wood sculptor, to a jolly cement truck driver who really wants only to continue herding his goats. It is because of this depth and variety of interviews that we are able to make such a high quality film. The film is nearing completion. We have gone from researching and planning a storyboard, to filming in Inner Mongolia, and then to editing the film back in Indiana. We are now editing the subtitles for timing and content and thinking of ways to show our film to the public. The film, in its current incarnation, is a dynamic look at the culture of Inner Mongolia which explores where and why it is disappearing and what steps are being taken to preserve it for future generations.