Entertainment

This Film Looks at Motherhood in the Harsh Winter

In the film “Graveyard of Horses,” a pregnant woman is left to fend for herself and her young daughter in the absence of her husband and while dealing with power blackouts, lost cattle, and wolves.
Graveyard of Horses short film is about a pregnant woman taking care of her household in the Inner Mongolian winter.
“If the typical story of Mongolian men is of a warrior riding his beloved steed and sacrificing himself in battle, then I want to talk about the story of the women who were left behind—their anxieties about surviving in the cold wilderness," said Graveyard of Horses director Jiang Xiaoxuan. Photo: Courtesy of Real Image Media Collection

A pregnant woman trudges alone on an endless grassland, icy and barren in the depth of winter—almost like an open graveyard. This is the opening scene of the short film Graveyard of Horses, a story about motherhood in the bitter cold. 

“Last winter, on my way to a friend’s house in Inner Mongolia, I saw from afar a dead horse lying on the side of the road. I took my camera and got out of the car to take a photo, only to realize that it was a female horse who had died of a miscarriage. Behind her were scattered horse feces and her lifeless fetus, frozen stiff,” said director Jiang Xiaoxuan of the inspiration behind her poignant short film set in the wintry fields of Inner Mongolia. 

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Born in Inner Mongolia in 1997, Jiang grew up listening to folk tales from the grasslands and local customs of shepherd communities. In Mongolian culture, the legend of  Genghis Khan looms large. The conqueror is worshiped in households and his heroic tales are passed down through generations. But these are not exactly the stories Jiang wants to tell. 

“I want to try showing the other side of traditional folk tales,” she said. “If the typical story of Mongolian men is of a warrior riding his beloved steed and sacrificing himself in battle, then I want to talk about the story of the women who were left behind—their anxieties about surviving in the cold wilderness.”

This anxiety is portrayed through motherhood in Graveyard of Horses, set in an unspecified time period, where the unnamed protagonist is left to fend for herself in the absence of her husband. On the grassland, where temperatures at night can reach -30 degrees Celsius, she prays for the health of her young daughter and her unborn child, while gritting her teeth through power blackouts in her house, her missing flock of sheep, and distant howls from predatory wolves.

Graveyard of Horses tells the story of motherhood in the harsh Inner Mongolian winter.

“Graveyard of Horses” tells the story of motherhood in the harsh Inner Mongolian winter. ​Photo: Courtesy of Real Image Media Collection

According to Jiang, the film’s proximity to the forces of nature was an intentional choice to highlight the protagonist’s femininity. 

“Conventionally, women are seen as more willing to share connections with animals and the world around them,” she said. “This is the feminine quality we’re born with, rich and sensitive—though it’s not particularly revered in today’s society.”

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“But I always feel that this quality is very much worth embracing.”

The unnamed protagonist is left to fend for herself in the absence of her husband while taking care of her young daughter and unborn child.

The unnamed protagonist is left to fend for herself in the absence of her husband while taking care of her young daughter and unborn child. ​Photo: Courtesy of Real Image Media Collection

An independent production with a limited budget, Jiang’s team mostly comprises her friends and classmates. But this also made for a tight-knit team that shared the same vision. Graveyard of Horses premiered at the 2022 PÖFF Shorts, a short film and animation festival based in the Baltics. 

Jiang Xiaoxuan, the film's director, has focused on creating stories about her hometown of Inner Mongolia as a way of contributing to the community.

Jiang Xiaoxuan, the film's director, has focused on creating stories about her hometown of Inner Mongolia as a way of contributing to the community. ​Photo: Courtesy of Real Image Media Collection

Graveyard of Horses is perhaps the most challenging short film I’ve made since I entered the industry in 2017,” said Jiang. “I leaped into all the pitfalls that my film school teachers had warned me repeatedly about—extreme weather, animals, casting non-actors and children.” 

Since graduating from film school in 2020, Jiang has focused on creating stories about her hometown as a way of contributing to the community. 

“Sometimes it’s like, you took something away from this land, so you have to give it back in another way,” she said.

In partnership with Real Image Media Collection.