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“This is the first time I’ve had a publicist,” apologizes Adrian Belic, and he’s clearly a little abashed. Unshaven and dressed mostly in denim except for an elaborately trimmed Mongolian jacket, Belic looks as if he’d be more comfortable riding a yak than sitting in a P Street hotel suite. Still, he’s excited to be talking about Genghis Blues, the Oscar-nominated documentary he made with his brother, Roko, and thrilled by its reception at a pair of Filmfest DC screenings.
“Every time, we had to be kicked out of the theaters ’cause we stayed too long,” the cocky but good-humored filmmaker boasts. “D.C. is such an international city. There were people from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, two Tuvan students.”
The little-known Tuva is the setting for much of Genghis Blues, which, Belic admits, tells an implausible story: San Francisco bluesman Paul Pena masters the rare Tuvan art of throat-singing, which involves vocalizing several notes simultaneously, and travels to the obscure state to participate in its triennial musical competition.
The brothers first discovered the autonomous republic of Tuva, which is currently part of the Russian federation, through a documentary about American physicist Richard Feynman. Fascinated by the stamps Tuva issued during a brief period as an independent country, Feynman tried in vain to visit. After Feynman’s death, friend Ralph Leighton became the closest thing to an American expert on Tuva.
“We saw this documentary,” Belic remembers, “and my brother said, ‘We gotta go there. And we gotta get there fast. ‘Cause it’s already on TV, dammit.’”
The Belics were suburban Chicago high school students when they first learned of Tuva, but it wasn’t ’til they had both graduated from college that they decided to make the trip. “We were free,” Belic says. “We could do whatever we wanted. And the first place we wanted to go was Tuva. So we called up Ralph Leighton, the only man who knew anything about it. He told us about yurts and yaks and throat-singing, and we were just drooling.
“And then he goes, ‘But you want to hear a good story?’ And he told us about a blind blues guy who heard throat-singing on shortwave radio and spent 10 years teaching himself. Learned the Tuvan language by going from Tuvan to Russian, Russian to English, one letter at a time. Met the most famous Tuvan throat-singer alive, and he’s going to Tuva next year.”
The Belics initially thought that Leighton was making fun of them, but he finally convinced them that the story was for real. He wasn’t pitching them a movie idea, however. The BBC had already committed to accompanying Pena to Tuva.
Roko Belic traveled in Tuva in 1994 anyway—which impressed Leighton. Shortly after Roko returned, the BBC pulled out, and Leighton told the brothers they had the assignment. “So we started calling every adult that we knew, and told them, ‘Here’s this story, it’s really incredible.’”
It was too incredible. Conducting a dialogue with himself, Belic reconstructs his frustrating conversations with potential backers:
“Look, here’s the pitch. There’s a place called Tuva. (Doesn’t exist on a map.) There’s a style where one person can sing three to five notes at the same time. (What the fuck are you talking about?) There’s a blind blues dude who’s really great and has played with all the greats. (Does he have an album? No.) Listened to shortwave radio. (What the hell is that?) Heard this stuff that can’t be done from a place that doesn’t exist, taught himself not only the way to sing it but the language, which nobody believed existed. And who the hell are we? We’ve done little Super 8 films since elementary school. If all that’s true and we do shoot it, who’s gonna want to see it?
“When we got accepted to Sundance last year,” Belic adds, “all my friends said, ‘Are you going to stick it to those bastards who didn’t believe you guys?’ But we thought, No, not really, ’cause we didn’t believe it.”
With no financing, the brothers emptied their savings accounts and maxed out their credit cards. “I had a High 8 camera in college, and my brother bought another High 8 camera and a portable DAT machine, a couple mikes, and two tickets on Aeroflot. We stayed with the locals there for five weeks and shot.”
Like Pena, the Belics were esteemed guests and thus spared the cost of staying at one of Tuva’s two Soviet-style guest houses. But this status also had its disadvantages. Throat-singing star Kongar-ol Ondar, the man who sponsored Pena’s trip, was mischievously insistent that his guests sample all the local delicacies.
“We had 11 sheep slaughtered for us,” recalls Belic. “Eleven or 12. ‘Cause everywhere we went we were guests of honor. And you eat these innards of the sheep. The first time everyone was taking their little ceremonial bit of it. And I guess Kongar-ol saw that my brother and I would stick it in our cheek and then spit it out. So the second sheep that was slaughtered, Kongar-ol brought this big platter and presented it to us. And everyone was watching. My brother and I were like, ‘Kongar-ol, you little fucker.’
“I’ll give you a tip,” Belic volunteers. “If you ever go to someplace where they serve you innards of animals, avoid lung. It’s chewier than chewing gum. You sit there and chew and chew. I mean, big deal, it’s lung. You’re not going to die. But it just lingers, and you end up having to swallow it whole.”
Then there’s the local liquor, made from fermented milk. “It’s a very smooth thing,” says Belic, “but it’s got this little kick on the end. Oh man, not pleasant. I can’t say I’ve tasted this before, but it’s got this aftertaste like a wet sheep’s asshole. You think you must have bad breath after having cigars and bourbon? Man. You don’t know.
“But it’s part of the adventure. And high tradition, too. Very important.”
The brothers returned with 90 hours of footage from Tuva and shot another 15 in the U.S. “The plan was to finish the film in ’96, take it on the festival circuit in ’97, and return to Tuva for the next triennial throat-singing competition in ’98,” Belic says with a laugh. “Well, in ’98 we were still in the throes of editing this thing. So we didn’t go back.”
One benefactor ran an editing facility that the brothers were allowed to use on nights and weekends. “Either you have time or you have money. We didn’t have a penny. So we just settled in. From 5:15 in the evening to 6:45 in the morning, and all weekend long.
“In the end, the thing was, we loved it. We live in San Francisco—what a cool city. At least that’s what my friends tell me,” he chuckles, listing various hip attractions he’s never seen. “But we like this stuff. That’s what we do.”
Genghis Blues recounts several medical crises, but things got worse after the Tuva trip for Pena, who now has pancreatic cancer. “A little over a year ago, he was formally diagnosed,” Belic says. “They basically said he had a month or two to live. This January, he celebrated his 50th birthday.” The Belics continue to raise money for Pena’s care, both in person and through the film’s Web site, www.genghisblues.com.
The brothers have made only a few thousand dollars off the film so far, but they did get that Oscar nomination, something that Belic insists is not that important to him.
“When the Oscars were announced, where were my brother and I? Ulan Bator, Mongolia, showing the film—dubbed in Mongolian—to the U.S. ambassador and 800 members of the general community. We had this incredible screening, and people came and poured their hearts out. All of a sudden, some friends called and said, ‘We’re going to the Oscars.’ And we hung up, and it was like, ‘Dude, so how are we gonna get to the southern Gobi in two days?’
“I imagine it was like guys on Apollo 13 traveling around the dark side of the moon, and they get the word that, like, the Yankees won the World Series. It’d be like, ‘Great, cool. Look at the surface of the moon.’ That’s who we were.”
Neither Belic has yet visited the moon, but they’ve both been too busy traveling to really get started on their next film, about a successful academic program in a tough L.A. high school. Indeed, as soon as Belic finishes talking, he’s going to Hong Kong to try to sell Genghis Blues’ Asian rights.
“We’ve got a great agent in London,” he says. “But she ain’t in Hong Kong. And they’re paying my ticket and putting me up in a hotel for four days. So I’m going to Hong Kong!
“Do you want to see the world?” he counsels gleefully. “Make a film on High 8, go to Sundance, go to the Oscars. It’s really easy.”
He laughs: “What a fucking fantasy!”—Mark Jenkins