Four times a year, a handful of Kazakh nomads still herd their livestock through Mongolia’s Altai Mountains: a way of life they have struggled to preserve with incredible determination. The survivors of Soviet collectivization in Kazakhstan in the 1930s, in which over half the population perished, they sought refuge in Western China. But they soon became the victims of Mao’s communist revolution. Some of them crossed into Mongolia and finally found peace in the high mountain valleys of the Altai.
Today, these survivors are some of the last remaining nomads on Earth, a culture that refuses to relinquish tradition and has remained on horseback even in the age of machines.
I met 9-year old Janibek when I was filming in the Altai for a three-part exploration of horse cultures around the word, called EQUUS – STORY OF THE HORSE. Working in remote alpine locations, we filmed with his family over both summer and winter seasons. I rode with him as he went on his first winter migration, the most gruelling event in the herding calendar. Herding hundreds of pregnant livestock over high mountain passes, the winter migration is already a hazardous journey on horseback. But Janibek’s initiation coincided with a “zhut” – an infamous killer winter, when the snow is too deep for the animals to feed. Our journey provides this film with its climax.
I was inspired to make Boy Nomad by the realization that childhood is both universal… and specific.
Children play everywhere. But in my culture, we shield our kids from responsibility and risk long into what, would be considered adulthood in Mongolia. At 9 years old, we catch Janibek just on this threshold: a boy with an instantly recognizable sense of fun and mischief, yet with the responsibilities of a young man. I know the viewer will be as captivated by this ambiguity as I was.
Janibek takes us on a journey any of us would consider a serious expedition, beset by extreme cold, isolation and the risks of the alpine world. Because of these challenges, the winter migration has never been filmed before. As we crossed the most inaccessible passes, I was separated from my film crew for long stretches of time and the film relies partly on footage I shot from horseback. We slept in stone huts along the route, bringing hay to keep the livestock alive on the back of a camel. Our herd of horses broke a trail for the smaller animals, and all the time, we dreaded when our goats and sheep would begin dropping their babies.
Yet looking at Janibek smiling through the storms, we realize that he is at home on the back of a horse. There is nowhere else a Kazakh boy would rather be. A coming-of-age story from the roof of the world.
Watch The Film
Our World Premiere was at the 2018 Banff Mountain Film Festival and our festival with the Banff World Tour to 45 countries ran throughout 2019-2020. Find a screening near you. https://www.banffcentre.ca/banffmountainfestival/tour