CPH:DOX 2024 review: The Bones (Jeremy Xido)

“Existing at the perfect intersection between historical documentary and globe-spanning adventure drama, The Bones offers a fascinating and fresh approach to a subject that is quite literally ancient.”

As the old but reliable adage goes, the truth is usually stranger than fiction. There are corners of society so abstract and strange that we could never fathom them had we not been introduced to them by those who set out to capture their eccentricities. Jeremy Xido has a passion for telling offbeat stories, particularly those centering on people who don’t necessarily follow the status quo, but instead forge their own path. His most recent endeavour takes the form of The Bones, in which he immerses himself amongst those who peddle in the art of dinosaur bone collecting, the people who spend a fortune to engage in this costly (and some may even say quite redundant) hobby of trading fossils. Venturing between the United States and Mongolia, and several places in between, Xido spins an unforgettable yarn about this expensive pastime and the people who have developed a taste for the excitement that comes with these discoveries, particularly the realization that you can make quite a profit if you play your cards correctly.

Considering the unorthodox nature of The Bones, it would only be logical for the director to have employed certain structural and stylistic choices that match the same off-kilter tempo. The film is unique for a number of reasons, primarily in how it takes an already strange subject and presents it less as a straightforward, fact-based documentary, but more as a free-wheeling, eccentric adventure story that traverses the globe, covering a wide span of cultures and historical milieux in his endeavour to explore the trials and tribulations of the people who can afford such a peculiar hobby. The leisurely trading of fossil bones for the sake of simply owning a piece of history is immediately something that captures our attention. Whether taking place in the brutal, endless landscapes of the Gobi Desert, the sleek auction houses across Europe, or the back alley markets in which these fossils are traded, the film makes use of many different settings to offer a thorough depiction of an industry many of us may not have even realized existed in the first place, but are not likely to forget any time soon based on how starkly Xido endeavours to capture it, offering fascinating and sometimes quite unsettling details in the process.

However, despite the very entertaining and insightful aspects of the story that point towards it being a more eccentric project, The Bones is still a film steeped heavily in reality and driven by a purpose much deeper than simply being an offbeat account of the subject. Towards the end of the film, one of the characters mentions that his purpose in researching and collecting these fossils, which they consider to be ‘ghosts of deep time’, is to ‘resurrect entire worlds’. This perfectly summarizes the central theme of the film, which is the commodification of the past under the guise of academia and research, which has become rife with opportunistic capitalists. History is unfortunately only considered valuable when there is some way to benefit from it, and the literal act of buying and displaying remnants of the past as some kind of social status is a vulgar activity, but one that is seemingly only growing in popularity as we become more invested in putting a price tag on what should be priceless artefacts. This version of what we can consider haut décor is shown in detail, and the director does well to present an objective depiction of this industry, only offering his own perspective towards the end of his whistle-stop tour through the lives of these people and their unconventional hobby.

Far from trivial in how it handles its underlying themes, The Bones consistently avoids resorting to the more obvious techniques sometimes found in these unusual documentaries, and instead finds the perfect balance between the offbeat and deeply sobering. This allows the film to be a more nuanced depiction of a subject that could have been unwieldy in the hands of another filmmaker who may not have been able to provide such a succinct and detailed overview. It is intentionally meandering, leaping liberally between different perspectives and locations, and shifting protagonists constantly, which keeps the narrative exhilarating and captivating while never losing sight of the more intellectual and historical detail on which the film was built. Existing at the perfect intersection between historical documentary and globe-spanning adventure drama, The Bones offers a fascinating and fresh approach to a subject that is quite literally ancient. There is a lot of work done to emphasize the importance of this topic, and even more done to transform a narrative centred almost entirely around bones into a thrilling examination of the fickle boundary between curiosity and greed, a distinction that is crossed far too frequently. Concise, complex and perpetually engaging, The Bones is one of the year’s most thrilling documentaries and one that will resonate with anyone with a desire to see a different side of history and how it interweaves with modern social practices.