Filmmaker Lena Lucki Stein revisits her past in Mongolia and looks at all the thoughts this awakens in “We Were Just Dreaming.” Old home-movies, intercut with new footage, are used to low-key but powerful effect. Docu fests should definitely check out this study of how a faraway society changed when communism collapsed.
In the early ’60s, Stein lived in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Her Jewish family had moved there from Poland, and her father, an architect, was in charge of projecting how the city could be transformed into a celebration of socialism.
While there, Stein befriended the Khaidav family, especially the daughter, Altansukh, who never forgave her father when he moved to another city, found a new woman and divorced his wife. (The wife later committed suicide.)
Stein’s family had planned to adopt Altansukh, but were suddenly called back to Poland and subsequently emigrated to Sweden. Thirty-five years later, Stein decided to go back to Ulan Bator to see what happened to her old friends.
Unhappy Altansukh is now the single mother of a grown daughter who’s moved to the West. Her brother, Timurbataar, had a career as a pop singer but his star has faded and he drinks too much.
Gongorin, the father, is now 84 but looks and behaves as if much younger. He loves to remember the good old days, when he was a celebrated opera singer and even sang for Stalin, and finds it difficult to believe everything he’s heard about the atrocities during Stalin’s reign.
Backdrop to the film is the country’s transition from a communist society to one that’s grappling with capitalism. In the old days, everything was simple; now people realize the future promised them is not so golden. “You can’t survive on a dream,” says one.
With each of the three Khaidavs, Stein re-visits places from her childhood, recording her thoughts in voiceover. She intercuts this with newsreels, propaganda films and home movies shot by her father.
Unfortunately, Stein has manipulated some of the new footage to make it resemble the home movies, which is confusing and adds nothing of value. Still, tech credits are fine, with the two d.p.s catching both the beauty and the ugliness of Mongolia’s landscape.