“What we tried to do is create something that is not educational per se, but is entertaining,” Robert H. Lieberman told me about his latest film. “Echoes of the Empire: Beyond Genghis Khan” completes a trilogy of documentaries that also includes “They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain” (2012) and “Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia” (2017). But to say that the film is not educational sells it very short.
In just a shade over 70 minutes, Lieberman’s excellent and empathetic film – constructed with the aid of Deborah Hoard on story and the editing of David Kossack – gives us a sense of Mongolia’s history, the complicated and, at times, suppressed legacy of its emperor, Genghis Khan, and how its people, like all people these days, are weighing their traditions against the needs of modern life. The historical segments are illustrated by bold, UPA-style animation and cloudy swashes of watercolor ink.
Lieberman spoke to the Ithaca Times in advance of the film’s Ithaca premiere on Friday in Cinemapolis’ “virtual cinema.”
IT: How long did this take to put together?
RL: Two-and-a-half years, and that’s the fastest we’ve ever done a film. Like, “Myanmar” was four years, and “Angkor Awakens” was four years in the making. This is, for us, quick.
IT: It’s a great immersion into Mongolian culture, and the more specific you are, the more universal it feels.
RL: Yes, yes.
IT: I saw a culture steeped in a very specific tradition that is evolving, almost involuntarily. They’re thinking about the same things we’re thinking about, namely, how much of our culture should we keep, and what do we evolve into, and what does all this history mean?
RL: And they’re having the same problems with inequality and climate change.
IT: Now everything is shaded by COVID-19. I just watched Ron Howard’s documentary about this California community trying to rally after awful fires, and now I wonder how they’re coping now with COVID-19 in the mix.
RL: Well, in Mongolia, they have no community spread of COVID. Zero. And the only cases were those that came in. They’re very strict with quarantine. If you come in, I think it’s three weeks of quarantine, and then if you’re positive, it’s, I don’t know, a month and a half. But they have zero. They immediately closed their borders with Russia and China, and that saved their ass. Ulaanbaatar is a big city – I mean it’s one and a half million [population], fairly dense. And it’s not making the press. I said this to my friends in the New York Times, figuring they’d pick it up, and they didn’t. Nobody’s picked up that story.
IT: I was very taken by the inky, watercolor brush-stroke animation and the animation that looked like Indonesian shadow puppetry.
RL: There are no shadow puppets as in “Angkor Awakens.” These are all drawings by Camilo Nascimento. He did the ink drawings of Genghis Khan and family, and designed the horseman stencil. Camilo and Norm Scott spent hours happily splattering ink on paper and perfecting the flow. Norm Scott did many additional illustrations and all the animation. Alec Simmons did all the maps and Jeff Hodges designed the end credits sequence.
By the way, there were well over a dozen Cornellians who worked on this film. Included among the Cornell faculty, alums, graduate students and undergrads involved are Associate Producer Zorba B. Lieberman (’87), MBA (’92); and production and research assistants Alexa Marcasciano (’20) and Lauren Gabuzzi (’16). Senior Lecturer in Biology Allen D. MacNeill appears in the film, as well as Mongolian graduate students and alums S. Unur, G. Tushig and E. Bilguun.
IT: As the film’s subtitle suggests, a significant section of the film is about the story of Genghis Khan, the scope of what he did, and how his legacy was tarnished in the years after his death.
RL: Genghis Khan had no pictures taken of him, no statues erected. Did you know that?
IT: So the artwork and statuary we see in Mongolia was all done posthumously?
RL: Yeah. Nobody knows what he looks like. And when he was buried, it was a secret burial. Nobody quite knows – they have suspicions – but this guy was actually rather modest. Now, here’s something interesting that’s not in the movie: when his wife is kidnapped, he gets her back. You see that in the film. But what you don’t know is, she came back pregnant. And he accepted the child, a boy, as his own son. So this is pretty decent, right? He had a terrible childhood, horrible. They were outcasts, his father was murdered. We know about the slaughter, and it was brutal. If you agreed with Genghis Khan, if you went along, you were fine, you got protection. If you didn’t, he’d wipe out your city. On the other hand, he established religious freedoms, diplomatic immunity and rights for women.