Tuva or Bust!

Genghis Blues exposes "lost" land, art

Tuva attracts some mighty weird—or, at least, very determined—people. A certain degree of obsession is necessary to travel to this central Asian Russian republic. For physicist Richard Feynman, the interest started when he asked his friend Ralph Leighton what ever happened to Tannu Tuva, the country that had years earlier made Feynman and other stamp collectors' tongues get gummy with delight by issuing a series of oddball stamps during the 1930s. Skeptical of whether the place even existed, the pair found out all they could about the "lost" land, its khöömei—throat singing that produces two or more distinct tones simultaneously—and became determined to visit one day.

After seeing a documentary detailing the men's quest for Tuva (Feynman, sadly, never made it there before he died in 1988), Roko and Adrian Belic were inspired to journey there, and later, after college, the brothers set out to make their first professional film about the south-central Siberian land. They contacted Leighton, who had founded the organization Friends of Tuva. He persuaded them to make a documentary about Paul Pena, a blind American blues musician who had taught himself throat singing. His husky, growling kargyraa style had so impressed a group of touring Tuvan throat singers that they talked him into competing in the national throat-singing contest to be held in a couple of years.

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Though ostensibly about Pena's struggles and accomplishments during his journey to Tuva, the Belics' resulting Oscar-nominated documentary feature, Genghis Blues, is also the tale of everyone involved in its making. While not a huge presence, the brothers appear in footage of the trip as well as in interviews, along with a real-life cast of quirky characters—including a kooky old DJ and a slickster tree trimmer/recording engineer/ filmmaker/rock musician named Lemon DeGeorge—and the spirit of Feynman, whose presence via old film footage takes on a guardian spirit-like role. Instrumental in persuading Pena to come to his country, throat singer Kongar-ol Ondar plays host and tour guide, leading the group around the countryside, showing monuments and visiting his family. Likened in the film to Tuva's version of John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley and Michael Jordan all rolled into one, Ondar's nonstop grin always seems genuine, particularly when he shows off his young music students, who he hopes will be able to travel the world like he has.

The practice of Tuvan cultural traditions, suppressed when the former USSR annexed the once-independent country in 1944, is once again growing with a weakened grip from Moscow and increased national pride.

In one of the film's most stirring moments, near its conclusion, Ondar sits with Pena in an idyllic mountain setting. Because Pena can't see, his friend attempts to convey the beauty surrounding them through his khöömei, emulating the gurgling, whistling sounds of nature. In the same respect, it is through Pena's throat singing that the two manage to connect across cultures. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of more connections to come.

 
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