Nomadic Childhoods is a 3-part film. It tells three different stories, all set in the steppes of Central Asia, and all, at some point, involving the children of nomads. Nomads, in case you don’t know, are people who roam around, never truly settling down in one location. I clear this up for you now just so that you aren’t confused. “Nomad” isn’t exactly a common word, you know, especially if English isn’t your first language. I’m looking out for you, audience.
The first story in the film involves a single three-person family living in Tibet. We watch them go about their ways: packing and unpacking the tent in which they live, milking or moving the yaks, and so on. A man in a car approaches them and says that they can’t keep doing this, that the government won’t let them, and that the child, a daughter, should go to school. He sounds serious. “Next time, someone else will come.” The film opens this way, I believe, for two reasons. It highlight the evil government — one of the connecting themes — and also demonstrates just how nomadic life is. We don’t need to be shown any more; we know how nomads live.
Next up is a segment set in the wintery landscape of Siberia. A teenage mother needs to go to town in order to register her baby, but on the way, the baby is lost. In the winter. In Siberia! You know, the place whose winters can reach incredibly low temperatures? It’s a thrilling adventure as we get to be scared for the baby, even after it’s found by a group of nomads. And a reindeer. The other connecting thread of the stories is that they all involve furry animals.
Finally, we head to Mongolia, where two teenagers are planning to … show their love for each other, but are seemingly thwarted at every turn. This is our comedic part of the film. First, a mother returns early. Then, neighbors come over to keep the daughter company — even though she’s already got someone for that. Then, the two head to the city to find an inn, but aren’t 21 so they can’t get a room. The boy has to leave the next day! It’s funny and it’s sweet, and it works as a perfect way to send the audience home happy.
I was initially much more down on the first story than I am right now. I didn’t recognize that its primary purpose was just to establish this lifestyle in the minds of the audience, for whom it is likely to be a big departure from everyday life. Its plot isn’t particularly interesting and not much happens. But it puts the wheels in motion to make the other two more involving. We don’t have to take time to set up anything. And the other two are thrilling and funny, respectively.
Even in the first story, which is relatively dull, you will be engaged thanks to the visuals. You don’t get to see Tibet, Siberia, or Mongolia all that often, and director Christophe Boula and cinematographer Arnaud Hémery work their hardest to ensure that you’re going to appreciate every minute of it. It’s gorgeous. There are several shots in each story just of the scenery, and they’re some of the most enjoyable moments.
Nomadic Childhoods has a mix of professional and amateur actors, although you’re not going to be able to tell which is which, as everyone feels as naturalistic as can be. It often feels like we’re watching a documentary, even if there is a story being told and an obvious narrative path we’re following. It helps that we follow the children’s perspective for most of the film. They’re as unbiased as possible, and through their lens we can view the nomadic society for all that it has to offer, both good and bad. Oh, and the evil government. Even movies about nomads can’t forget that governments have to be evil. In the movies, of course.
Spanning several countries and three stories, Nomadic Childhoods is a film that will certainly get you to appreciate what exactly it is like to live a nomadic lifestyle. It will also involve you in two very enjoyable stories — but only after information-dumping you with its first one, which is slow but necessary. This is a beautiful film filled with naturalistic actors. A better opening narrative would have served as a better hook, but it’s hard to begrudge what winds up being a rewarding experience.