Culture at a Distance: Ulrike Ottinger’s “Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia”
The films of German director Ulrike Ottinger, who has been working consistently since the early 1970s, can be characterized by continual progressive exploration, whether that entails experimental or surrealistic visuals or filmmaking modes, or the movement beyond a white heteromasculine culture that makes up the norm.
Ottinger’s 1989 film, Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia, which closes Toronto’s Goethe Institut’s short retrospective of her work, encapsulates this exploration. Delphine Seyrig, in her last role, stars as Lady Windermere, an ethnologist traveling across Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Railway. She and her bourgeois European companions are taken hostage by Mongolian princess Ulan Iga (Xu Re Huar). Initially afraid, Lady Windermere and her young protégée Giovanna (Inés Sastre) guide their compatriots through the experience with their knowledge of Mongolian languages and customs.
Keeping a respectful distance, Ottinger (by way of Lady Windermere) allows Princess Ulan Iga and her tribe to function on their own terms. When they halt the European train, passengers are frightened of suspected violence or unknown customs. However, the educated Lady Windermere speaks their language, she knows what to expect. During the travel delay, she interprets for her fellow passengers what is happening, calming them while keeping them out of the Princess’ proceedings. Rather than being a tour guide of sorts, Lady Windermere is one who keeps the Europeans in check, illuminating their experience without exposing or invading the Mongolian space. This involves distance: Lady Windermere’s group is separate from the Princess’, and it is their perspective we get.
To keep a whole culture on the outside of a narrative can marginalize it, Otherize it. It remains foreign. This is a trap, but one that exists with reason: to explain another culture too heavily attempts to define it through an outsider’s perspective, to leave it untouched fetishizes it as unknowable — two modes that have been constantly repeated in art. The question as to whether a white European filmmaker could ever toe this line is tricky, and the answer is perhaps that, save for exceptions, both methods have great faults.
To be sure, Johanna d’Arc has its problems, particularly in the way it uses the Mongolian culture it depicts. Sometimes the Princess feels too distant, as she is never able to explain herself in the face of the European passengers (and European filmmaker) who view her. And, on occasion, Ottinger uses the old trope of questioning who is the true oddity — the Mongolian warrior tribe or the extravagant Europeans — that ultimately still fetishizes cultures as Other through binaries and identification with only one group. Depicting the foreign Mongolians as a cohesive society and the Europeans as erratic still emphasizes difference, with perspective and understanding always falling firmly in the camp of the westerners, regardless of their supposed strangeness.