Woodstock Tuvan Style
A few hundred kilometres away from the Gobi desert in the middle of the vast steppe there is a town infamous for its high crime rate. And yet every summer for the last 20 years people from all over Russia and the rest of the world come here to attend a musical festival. They immerse themselves in a space filled with live music and live communication – no gadgets, no alcohol, no ranks and no money for the entrance. For five days locals and foreigners mix with famous American jazz and bluesmen unaware of their fame.
The festival was founded in 1999 to restore an ancient Buddhist temple, which was destroyed during the anti-religious repressions of the 1930-s. A whole generation in this tiny beautiful republic bordering Mongolia grew up on that festival’s music and ethos.
This unique festival is the brainchild and a lifework of two musicians, two dreamers as well as wife and husband – Igor Dulush and Sonya Kara-ool.
She has a voice of Maria Callas, he has the charm of Jean-Paul Belmondo and poetic depth of Bob Dylan. He’s a boxer, an avid hockey player, a man who can find a common language with local gangsters, politicians and shamans alike. But above all he’s a musician, who wants to leave a legacy.
2018, when the film was shot, was a difficult year for the couple. Igor has lost his brother, also a musician, who helped him from day one with the festival. His brother’s death right after the last year’s festival (and as some think because of the nerve-racking circumstances it was set up in), made him acutely aware of all the other sacrifices and losses he had to endure during all these years, when he invested a lot of his energy into his brainchild – the Ustuu-Khuree festival. He has a huge temptation to give up.
Igor reminds himself of something that drives him all these years: when you play well in front of a huge audience there is that one fleeting moment of beauty, when people who might have nothing in common feel united, freed and purified by the music you play. For this moment of beauty one can move mountains and it is worth it.
Their friends, musicians whose unique throat-singing technique was admired by so many westerners, including Frank Zappa, as well as American and European musicians who became regulars at the festival (The Sun Ra Arkestra and alike) – they all urge Igor and Sonya to continue their lifework. But will they and if they will, at what cost?
Why did I want to make this film? My main character Igor often reminds himself of something that drives him all these years: when you play well in front of a huge audience there is that one fleeting moment of beauty, when people who might have nothing in common feel united, freed and purified by the music you play. For this moment of beauty one can move mountains and it will be worth it. I am driven by the same moment of beauty.
What music is for him, visual storytelling is for me. If in telling his story, I’d be able to create a fleeting moment of beauty, when viewers who have nothing in common apart from being human and longing for a sense of purpose, could feel inexplicable affinity between themselves and this musician, because of a glance, a gesture, a laughter after an intense moment, it will be worth it.
Although I have more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist and a producer for the BBC, this is my first independently produced and directed feature length documentary. Hence it was important for me to choose a story no one else could tell in a way I was able to tell it. I spent my childhood in Tuva with my Tuvan grandfather and a Russian grandmother. I know Tuva, its people, its culture and its music intimately. I met the main characters 20 years ago and witnessed how the festival – their brainchild – was born. I am close to the place to notice details others might not and close to these people for them to trust me. Yet I am detached enough to see something the main characters and people who surround them don’t see anymore.
Scope of film
We all long for a sense of purpose. We all want to achieve something which will make us feel we didn’t waste our life. But what does it take to realise one’s dreams? What would you be ready to sacrifice for this? Can one escape from tough and at times absurdist Russia’s reality into a big musical dream?
In this film we have explored what lies behind that longing for a sense of purpose and how realised dreams change us and people around us in a way we didn’t expect.