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The last of the nomads: Student filmmaker documents changing Mongolian lifestyle, music

Loyola press release - October 15, 2013

When Loyola University New Orleans senior music industry studies major Dimitri Staszewski began his academic career four years ago, he never imagined he would travel 7,000 miles across the globe on a quest to document the changing musical traditions of Mongolian herders. But the aspiring filmmaker recently spent four months traveling back and forth between Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, and the Mongolian countryside filming and experiencing first-hand the culture he’d previously only read about.

His more than 20 hours of footage preserves examples of the music of one of the world’s last surviving nomadic cultures and one of the largest nomadic populations in the world. More than half of the Mongolian population has already shifted away from traditionally nomadic lifestyles, according to Staszewski.

After a sophomore semester backpacking throughout the southwest United States, Staszewski began exploring the idea of how people not only choose to live, but do live, throughout the world. One year and hours of research later, the California native embarked on his journey to Mongolia. He set off with the idea to film a documentary about the disappearance of the country’s traditional music of herders and the consequences for Mongolian culture as a whole.

“I realized that I wanted to document and help preserve music performed by herders and former herders because that is the cultural context from which all of the country’s traditional music originated,” Staszewski said. “Even Mongolians who live in the city will attest to the fact that, even though they are not herders, some part of the nomadic herder identity in the music resonates with them and speaks to their own sense of identity.”

During his stay with a nomadic family in the Mongolian countryside, Staszewski spent time herding, sheep wrangling and interviewing the locals. The most memorable moments happened when he was recording their musical performances.

“I met a herder who, after an interview, invited me to record him singing to his herd. That performance ended up being one of the most inspiring moments I have been able to be part of, and I felt honored to be able to be the one there capturing it,” Staszewski said.

Staszewski is currently back at Loyola and slowly editing the footage from his time abroad. His original notion of creating a documentary, however, has changed.

“It was impossible to capture everything I would want to include in a documentary, and I feel like that wouldn’t accurately showcase everything I witnessed. Instead, I want to create an interactive book that would combine short ethnographic essays with footage of actual performances and stories about my experiences as a foreigner and film engineer.”

Staszewski, who recently applied for a Fulbright Scholarship, hopes to return to Mongolia for another 10 months after graduation. While there, he would create an extensive online archive of performances and written narratives about Mongolian herders and former herders.

“My goal is to showcase a side of traditional Mongolian music that I feel is currently underrepresented,” Staszewski said.

For media interviews, contact Jess Brown in Loyola’s Office of Public Affairs at 504-861-5882.

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LoyNews is an e-newswire produced by the Loyola University New Orleans Office of Public Affairs. LoyNews is distributed weekly to local, regional and national news media outlets, communicating the latest news and accomplishments of the university and its community.