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The odyssey of "Genghis Blues"
The tale behind the Oscar-nominated documentary is as extraordinary as the Tuvan throat-singers it celebrates.

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By Jennifer New

March 22, 2000 | It's safe to say that whatever Tom Cruise and Annette Bening were doing after learning of their recent Oscar nominations, they were not preparing for six days in the Gobi. That's the Gobi Desert. Middle of Nowhere. Land of severe weather, yurts and nomadic people. But for Adrian and Roko Belic, the brothers behind the Oscar-nominated documentary film "Genghis Blues," spending six days in sub-freezing temperatures, huddling in their sleeping bags at night and traveling via camel was just where they wanted to be.

"Our agent was like, 'Guys, guys, do you have to do this again!'" laughs Adrian. The agent was referring to how they had flown off to New Zealand the day before their first film premiered in Los Angeles. 

But in both cases, a free ticket to an unexplored place proved more compelling than anything Hollywood could dish up. So a week before the Oscar nominations, knowing that they were already on a list of 12 non-fiction films that had been whittled from an initial 55, they left as much pertinent information and VHS copies with friends and family as they could muster, then headed off to be the featured speakers at a filmmaking workshop in Mongolia. 

This was not entirely new territory. Five years earlier, the brothers had spent considerable time just northwest of Mongolia filming "Genghis Blues" in the Russian region of Tuva. Situated in the center of Asia, Tuva was an independent state until it was annexed by the former USSR in 1944. Centuries before, it had been part of the great warrior Genghis Khan's Mongolian empire, although Khan had recognized the Tuvans as being a unique tribe, separate from the Mongolians. That kind of brotherly love is no longer readily apparent between the neighbors. Just a week before Adrian and Roko arrived in Mongolia, one of the most bloody incidents in a fierce, ongoing border war occurred. A group of Tuvans machine-gunned a Mongolian family to death and stole their cattle. Given this conflict, it was unclear how a film celebrating Tuvan culture was going to play in Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital city.

At the sound of the first dialogue, however, the audience broke into enthusiastic applause. Unbeknownst to the filmmakers, their work had been dubbed into Mongolian by one of the country's foremost actors. For the next 88 minutes, people laughed, cried and clapped for the ultimate road trip being played out on the screen. Afterwards, a group of Mongolian dignitaries spoke about how the American blues singer featured in the film, Paul Pena, was a hero, an ambassador of goodwill between different cultures. Then some students spoke directly to Adrian and Roko, saying that they were inspirations to young people everywhere to take on global projects. 

By the time they made it to dinner, high from the evening's emotion, Adrian looked at his watch: 9:30 p.m. in Mongolia meant 5:30 a.m. in Los Angeles. Almost on the nose, the call came. The woman who had organized the film's showing had a cell phone with her for just this purpose. Immediately she erupted into a broad smile. "For the next few minutes, the whole table cheered and clinked glasses; we were so excited!" recalls Adrian of the news of their nomination. "It felt terrific! But pretty soon we had to get down to planning for the Gobi." 

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