On a Wing and a Prayer: On The Making of Amka and The Three Golden Rules

Amka and The Three Golden Rules is the story of a Mongolian boy who learns the dangers of greed and materialism, themes that parallel the recent boom of commercialism in the country’s society. But how did Pakistani director and producer Babar Ahmed find himself telling this story in such a foreign, ancient land – which was nothing at all like he expected? As Ahmed explains, he found success in the goodwill of his collaborators – and a little touch of divine help.

Babar Ahmed in Mongolia AMKA AND THE THREE GOLDEN RULES

In the last two decades, Mongolia has discovered a vast array of natural resources – coal, gold copper, oil and uranium. For the first time since the great Genghis Khan, Mongolia has been thrust onto the global stage. The discoveries of these valuable resources have the potential to make Mongolia very rich. But they also have the potential to impose materialism and individualism on a pure and ancient culture.

Dan Hennenfent in center

Dan Hennenfent (center) gave useful filmmaking advice to Ahmed

Based on this real life premise, I wrote a fictional story called Amka and the Three Golden Rules about a 10-year-old Mongolian boy (played by  Genzorig Telmen) who discovers a gold coin. Consumed by materialism, his life spirals out of control. I began my research on various forums on the Internet. Dan Hennenfent, a director from Chicago, was the first to respond to my queries. Dan had travelled to Mongolia to help children and families in need.

At the end of my in-depth exchange with Dan, he said, “I’m praying for you.” This sentence seemed a little jarring to me as a filmmaker. How could someone make a connection between prayers and movies? I politely ignored the sentence and got back to preparing for the various elements of production: the script, the direction, the cinematography, etc. After an extensive research period, I packed up two Canon XH-A1s cameras, two sets of Sennheiser wireless mics and some small filming gear and jumped on the plane in Washington D.C. to Mongolia.

Twenty hours later, my stereotypes of Mongolia were shattered. Many Mongolians wear the latest designer clothes and their swagger makes a person feel like they are in the middle of a fashion shoot. On the playing fields, kids love to wear t-shirts representing famous soccer teams, but they also show talent for their traditional sports like horse riding, archery and wrestling. I was keen on shooting the movie in the poorest part of Mongolia – the Ger district. However, I was immediately advised against this. I was told, “The Ger district is not just poor, it’s very dangerous. Even Mongolian crews would not dare to film there.”

Amka High Rez Still 1 (Ganzorig Telmen in Amka and The Three Golden Rules) Chicago Dan from the online forums had earlier connected me with a flamboyant American woman residing in Mongolia – Susan Griffeth, or ‘the Lara Croft of Mongolia’. Fluent in the Mongolian language and an expert in the intricacies of Mongolian culture, she lived, of all places, in the world of the Ger District. She had dedicated her life to helping disadvantaged children in the most neglected parts of Mongolian society.

Susan provided detailed input on the script and then introduced me to a group of Mongolians, some of whom had grown up in the Ger district. This group became my film crew. And each person from this group was invaluable towards making the movie as culturally authentic as possible.

Before Susan handed me over to them, she said, “I’m praying for you.” And for the second time, I felt a little taken aback by someone linking prayers to a movie. I thought about the statement a little longer this time. But yet again, I politely ignored it.

Susan Griffeth in center

Susan Griffeth (center) was Ahmed’s guide and mentor during his time in Mongolia

Surprisingly, the Ger district turned out to be a warm and friendly place where people greet each other on the streets and share a terrific sense of humor. However, I did confront several challenges along the way. A company which had backed the project pulled out. Fortunately, a couple of key individuals came on board to push the movie towards its release. Then one of our initial lead actors just disappeared one morning, apparently deciding to visit some friends for the whole day. Fortunately, we were immediately able to replace him with someone even stronger for the role.

And I had to constantly be aware of being culturally authentic while maintaining the vision of the script. For example, several times the local crew would guide me: “A Mongolian wouldn’t do that because….” In such cases I would alter the actions of the character or the scene to fit the culture. But there were also a couple of times when I felt something was critical to the spirit of the story, but appeared to conflict with the local culture. During certain parts of the movie, for instance, the main character, Amka, is seen crying and hugging his uncle in one scene, which is uncharacteristic of a Mongolian. In this case, instead of altering the scene, I told my crew to brainstorm with me to create a context where this would make sense culturally.

For every challenge, I seemed to find a neat solution. And I couldn’t quite explain why or how, but everything was just falling right into place. Out of all the movies I had worked on, this was the first time I felt like no matter what happened, the ultimate result was always positive. After one of our film screenings, a gentleman came up to me and asked, “Everything seems to have come together almost perfectly on this movie. How did that happen… was it the direction, the script writing technique or because you didn’t face any big challenges?” This was a question I had pondered over myself many times before and by this point I felt like I had finally found the answer. The reason why things worked out on the movie was because of the gift that two people once gave me – their prayers. MM

Amka and the Three Golden Rules is playing in various U.S. cities this Spring. It screens April 10, 2014, at the Laemmle NoHo 7 in Los Angeles.

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