This at times astonishing mixture of travelogue and mysticism is the joint achievement of the Belgian Peter Brosens and the Mongolian Dorjkhandyn Turmunkh. Structured around the life of a dog called Baasar, “State of Dogs” is beautiful, haunting and distressing. Commercial prospects aren’t out of the question, but television seems a better home for this decidedly quirky production, which is already slotted into several festivals, both large and small, in the coming months. It won the Grand Prix at the Nyon documentary fest in April.
The population of Ulan Bator, the dusty, ugly capital of Mongolia, is 800,000 ; 120,000 stray dogs roam the city, and so it’s no real surprise that the administration hires a man to kill the unwanted canines.
More surprising is the way they’re killed — shot and just left to rot on the street (though occasionally used as fertilizer — a dead dog was buried under every tree that lines the avenue to the city’s airport.) Even more surprising is the fact that Mongolians believe that dogs are reincarnated as human beings.
Baasar is a stray dog who meets his fate at the hands of the dog killer; but, once dead, he’s disinclined to return in human form. He remembers the time he lived with nomadic goat-herders on the steppes and how he wound up in the city without a master and attached himself to a young woman.
The combination of a Belgian documentary sensibility and a Mongolian interest in fable and legend gives “State of Dogs” a unique vision. The images of the barren landscape and the blighted city, the herds of goats on the vast plains, the changing seasons, the traditional costumes, ceremonies and songs represent a different school of filmmaking from the wonderfully poetic narration and the strange idea of having society seen through the eyes of a dead canine.
Dog lovers won’t be thrilled by the scenes in which the strays are hunted down and shot, and other scenes feature cruelty to animals that may also upset some audiences. Despite this, this unusual film’s timeless beauty and the poetry and richness of its ideas make it compulsive viewing.