Work / Film

Catherine Hyland tells the unlikely story of Mongolian sumo wrestlers in her latest project

Catherine Hyland’s latest film is one of juxtaposition – of expectation and reality, of the weather, of the new and the old – but it is also one of camaraderie and friendship; a tale of a young group of Mongolians who are participants in an unlikely yet thriving sumo wrestling scene. Rise of the Mongolians and its accompanying photo series, commissioned by WePresent, is a revelatory and touching portrayal of a fascinating story.

“I first heard about [the scene] whilst reading a Forbes article about Dagvadorj Dolgorsurengiin which was published in 2012,” Catherine recalls, “where they referenced him as the Michael Jordan of sumo wrestling.” The article outlined Dagvadorj’s rise to prominence, the fastest in the sport’s history, going from professional debut to champion in just 24 tournaments. Then, at the age of 22, Dagvadorj began investing his winnings back home in Mongolia, making him one of the country’s richest businessmen. “I felt like I could visualise that scene so vividly, that I began researching the subject on and off for years and the idea continued to niggle at me, until I thought, ‘I just have to make work about this,’” she continues.

Today, the Japanese sport is thriving among the historically nomadic, but rapidly changing nation. And at the heart of this is the coach and mentor Davaagiin Batbayar, whose voice provides the narration for the short. Catherine also tells It’s Nice That about how she met the subjects of Rise of the Mongolians as Davaagin’s son "is in training and likely to become quite a successful sumo star, so I visited his son’s school and became quite quickly immersed in their world”.

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Catherine Hyland: Rise of the Mongolians

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Throughout the film, Catherine posits shots of vast expanses, the kind associated with Mongolia, alongside bustling urban scenes of Ulaanbaatar the country’s capital, which reflect the contemporary reality for the majority of its people. “Approximately 45 per cent of the country’s population resides in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. And about 60 per cent of the city’s population lives in the ger districts surrounding the city,” Catherine explains, “Many haven’t optionally moved to the city either, they have been forced to move to survive, following disastrously cold winters, which has upended the lives of herders and those living through similar means. You get this surreal hotchpotch of new skyscrapers and decaying Soviet tower blocks surrounded by thousands and thousands of gers and yurts. It’s an extremely overwhelming site.”

This tension between urban and rural, new and old, sun and snow, forms the backbone of the narrative of Rise of the Mongolians. Moving it beyond a story of athletes, these young wrestlers become symbols for the huge changes Mongolia has faced. At once they represent the traditional, nomadic lifestyle as they wrestle in the intense light of the village scenes, and the country’s more urban future which incorporates the diverse elements of other cultures, such as sumo wrestling, for example.

Underlying it all, however, is an intimate depiction of these young boys’ friendship and determination. “There is amazing camaraderie, and I guess because I am older, I can see how beautiful this particular moment in their lives is, as there is a naivety to it,” Catherine adds. “One day they will more than likely, be in serious opposition to each other if they choose to continue, especially due to the resources available to them (should they make it to Japan or even just existing in their home country). I very much hope they manage to keep and maintain that bond, as it’s something special and to be celebrated in terms of human nature.”

To produce the film and photos, Catherine worked closely with DOP Jorge Luis Diéguez, colourist Faith Millin, and editor Carly Baker.

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Catherine Hyland: Rise of the Mongolians

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Catherine Hyland: Rise of the Mongolians

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Catherine Hyland: Rise of the Mongolians

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Catherine Hyland: Rise of the Mongolians

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Catherine Hyland: Rise of the Mongolians

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Catherine Hyland: Rise of the Mongolians

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Catherine Hyland: Rise of the Mongolians

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Catherine Hyland: Rise of the Mongolians