Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Margaret Mead ’18: Eastern Memories

It is easy to speculate why Finnish linguist and diplomat Gustaf John Ramstedt had such an affinity for the Mongolian language and people. He started his field research at a time when Finland was a satellite of imperial Russia and Mongolia was controlled by China. Finland would achieve its independence after the 1917 revolution, but alas, Mongolia would essentially trade Chinese hegemony for Soviet domination. Ramstedt’s heart remained in Mongolia, but he served his country with distinction as its ambassador to Japan (and Manchuria). Passages from Ramstedt’s memoir contrast with hugely cinematic contemporary footage in Niklas Kullström & Martti Kaartinen’s Eastern Memories, which screens during the 2018 Margaret Mead Film Festival.

Ramstedt regretted the time away from his family, but he was still an eager and dedicated scholar, who found the Mongolian language an endlessly rich research subject. In contrast, he was a reluctant diplomat, but his facility with languages and big picture knowledge of Russian and Chinese politics made him quite effective in the post.

In both capacities, Ramstedt saw the two countries enter the modern era, but one was dragged there rather awkwardly, while the other willingly jumped head first. Although it may not be their intention, Kullström & Kaartinen’s documentary visibly illustrates how Japan’s capitalistic approach contrasts so dramatically with the socialism imposed on Mongolia for years. Despite the apocalyptic earthquake of 1923 and a devastating war that culminated with two atomic bombs dropping on major cities, Japan has a thriving economy and a high standard of living. In contrast, Mongolia is pockmarked with the bighted ruins of failed industrial projects.

Yet, ironically, the Mongolian segments are far superior, because they are more focused and the visuals of the steppe are even more arresting than Shinjuku by night. There are still plenty of impressive images seen during the Japanese segments, but the film periodically wanders from Ramstedt’s narrative into navel-gazing cultural commentary.

Ramstedt’s life story would indeed make a fascinating narrative film. Frankly, there are still lessons to be had from his insights into Soviet imperialism. Michael O’Flaherty’s authoritative yet strangely warm voice nicely brings Ramstedt’s words to life. Plus, Kullström’s striking cinematography makes Memories quite an accomplished technical package. Highly recommended as a viewing experience and as food for thought, Eastern Memories screens this Friday (10/19) as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival, at the American Museum of Natural History.

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