Interview with “Black Milk” Director Uisenma Borchu [OAFF 2021]

"Black Milk", the latest film by Uisenma Borchu, received its Japan premiere screening at the 16th Osaka Asian Film Festival(OAFF 2021). Her first feature film, "Don’t Look at Me That Way” won the Most Promising Talent Award at the 11th Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Like her previous work, Borchu wrote, directed and “Black Milk” while also taking the lead role and shooting nearly the entire story in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Here, she plays Wessi, a Mongolian woman who has lived in Germany for a long time. She chooses to escape from her dominant lover and travel back to her homeland where she reunites with her younger sister, a nomad named Ossai. In the magnificent Gobi Desert, sisters who have lived in opposite cultures confront each other, collide with each other's values, sometimes overcome traditional barriers, and realize each other's irreplaceability. It captures the daily lives of nomads and animals as if it were a documentary, and is truly a work that could only have been envisioned by director Borchu. It is a masterpiece that gives a lot of perspectives on how to tackle various problems faced by women.

We conducted a remote interview with Uisenma Borchu, the director of “Black Milk”.

――― Your previous work, “Don’t Look at Me That Way,” depicts a feeling of nostalgia for a distant homeland. Was it a natural progression to shoot almost the whole story in Mongolia in “Black Milk”?

Director Borchu: You can say so. I think that the second film followed the first film naturally. I was born in Mongolia and have lived away from Mongolia for a long time. However, I think I have always had a strong relationship with the country. Even though I lived in a 50 square meter apartment with my parents and with my brother and sister in Germany, those 50 square meters were Mongolia for us because my parents were very Mongolian. One step outside of the apartment was Germany, but it is no exaggeration to say that we lived in 50 square meters of Mongolia. Rather than leaving Mongolia and feeling lonely, I have lived a life full of love for Mongolia in my memory and education. Guided by this love, I started writing things, but instead of being forced by anyone, I wrote things that were driven by feelings from within me that I couldn't control. Therefore, it may be said that "Black Milk" was a natural flow in the sense that it went back one step.

――― It must have been difficult to shoot for a long time in the Gobi Desert, please tell us about your preparations for shooting.

Director Borchu: This movie was shot in the Gobi Desert and I decided to keep our film crew as small as possible, so it was my DP/cameraman, the sound guy, and me. My father, who also played Ossai’s father, he was also a part of it and he helped me in creating the yurt because I really wanted to have it be authentic to how the nomads actually live. It was very important to have that intimacy because when you go to these nomads and you have a big crew, they will automatically lose their natural way of behaviour. I wanted to get as close as possible to them and to give them the feeling that nothing is going on so we would have very authentic moments. It worked so well that the nomads said, "Are you really making a movie? It's completely different from our image of making a movie." I think we created a very good shooting environment to bring out the natural life of nomads.

――― Ms. Gunsmaa Tsogzol, who plays the role of the younger sister Ossai , she looked like your real sister. Can you please tell us about the casting?

Director Borchu: I was very lucky with Ossai. She was played by Gunsmaa who is my dear cousin and that’s why we look so very much alike. I asked if she could imagine playing a nomad woman and she said, “Well, I can do that but I can’t play a woman from a town or a city.” Gunsmaa grew up mostly in the desert and I think I was so lucky with her because she has this very strong energy and she was also pregnant at the time. You can sometimes see when an actress or an actor can develop a relationship with the camera and that’s what she really had, and therefore, I am very grateful.

―――Ossai is a woman who has lived in the Mongolian tradition of a nomad and she has followed the roles and taboos of women, but she tries to overcome these conventions while interacting with her sister Wessi who has returned from Germany. The goat slaughter scene and the milk bathing scene are very important in depicting these inner changes in Ossai .

Director Borchu: These are scenes that were present in my own life when I was watching nomadic women, especially my aunts, and seeing how they have dealt with different situations and how strong they are. I don’t know any woman in Mongolia who is weak in such an archaic world. They need to be very strong but they have to, of course, in a way, let themselves be suppressed by certain things by men. I myself have been told that "a woman is not allowed to kill a goat". I wanted someone to explain to me why these rules exist. They do have their arguments and I can understand why they are still following these ways but, of course, as a modern woman, you always ask why because these traditions, scientifically, are not based on something very clear. Ossai says, "You can't slaughter a goat until a man comes," but why do you have to wait for a man to come? Of course, Wessi is asking why she should have to rely on a man to live, which is natural for her.

In the Western world, people have the idea that "time is money". They think that you should do it by yourself instead of waiting for others to do it. In that respect, Mongolian nomads have a completely different way of thinking about time. They say that time is enough. Time is endless. Look at the sky, the horizon, everything is fine. You don’t have to hurry. I really like this thinking. That’s what Ossai thinks: “Maybe my sister Wessi is right, I am waiting for men. But still, where’s the problem in waiting?” On the other hand, Wessi is provoked by Ossai's actions, and the balance of their powers is shown in contrast there. The two are very similar, but also very different because Wessi grew up in the West and Ossai grew up in the old traditions of nomads. That's why I want to show Wessi that Ossai is also a strong woman.

Nomad women, nomads in general, they are not people who think only of themselves. They have to think first of others and then they think about themselves. In the scene where Ossai washes her body with milk, it shows how every woman has a desire to wash her body cleanly, but Ossai is also enjoying the beauty of her body. She is trying to really enjoy herself, which is absolutely not a normal thing for a nomad woman, and especially not with milk, because that’s something precious and people view the body as dirty, so you always put yourself down and I really like this because, in the Western world, we are very much focussed on ourselves.

――― On the other hand, Wessi begins her story by escaping a very dominant boyfriend and then returning to her homeland of Mongolia where she is forced to accept convention. Is this situation drawn from your actual experiences?

Director Borchu: I think I understand Wessi very well. German culture and Mongolian culture are really different, and in two different cultures she is looking for her own way and trying to find one world culture in herself. When Wessi was in Germany, she had a dominant boyfriend who said, "You belong to me." She started to think about it and she realized, “I have to go where my love is.” I think it’s her sister, and of course the Gobi Desert. But even there, she experiences similar expectations of women and it is very confusing for her. This is not just a problem for Wessi. Who are you, how do you want to live, and where are you? If we try to think deeply about such questions, we cannot avoid conflicts with those around us. It's an unavoidable path for anyone who wants to find their own way instead of fully following a particular culture. Wessi is struggling with it because it’s not so easy to find your own way, especially when you are depending upon love and when you are depending upon recognition from others. You cannot just be strong and go your own way. You are going to lose something and you are going to win something. It’s always a struggle, in a way, which is, I think, very good, because you need these kinds of conflicts to understand life with these societies.

――― In the impressive last scene, I personally had the image of two people like twins in the womb of the Earth. What kind of image did you want to project?

Director Borchu: That's a very nice image. Actually, my cousin Gunsmaa was pregnant with twins in her womb at this time. But yeah, the last scene is a metaphor. In this world we sometimes feel lost but if you have someone who you love, you should celebrate this love for as long as you can. I think it’s a very nice picture where you get a feeling of this wide landscape where you don’t have any point to go but at least you have someone who understands you and whatever you do or say. That is unconditional love and that is everything that counts.

――― Finally, please tell us the meaning of the title “Black Milk”.

Director Borchu: I wrote "Black Milk" when I was writing the scene where Wessi says this to frighten a man who wants to attack her. I think that it’s an expression of her strength and the strength of women. Breast milk is a symbol of the power connected to a woman's ability to make life. It is often used to refer to the strength of women, but the title "Black Milk" also expresses the strength of women. Generally speaking, breast milk is white, but here it is black. It is true strength that has not yet been discovered, and it is actually different from what the world calls a "woman’s strength." As I was discovering my own power, or when I watched other women and I see their power, the contrast is the opposite of common definitions and I think that it’s such a beautiful thing and it’s worth so much in this world for me, and that is why I wanted to express the opposite of what it is. So it’s the opposite. It’s not white, it’s black and that’s a beautiful discovery that I made in myself.

Interviewed by Yumi Eguchi

 Edited by Jason MAHER(Genkinahito)

"Black Milk "[Schwarze Milch]

2020|Germany, Mongolia|91min|Language: Mongolian, German

Director:Uisenma BORCHU

Cast:Gunsmaa TSOGZOL,Uisenma BORCHU,Franz ROGOWSKI,Terbish DEMBEREL,Borchu BAWAA