Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni, 2003, Mongolia/Germany, 90 mins
Janchiv Ayurzan, Chimed Ohin
The Story of the Weeping Camel is a unique and touching documentary about the lives and rituals of a nomadic family of Mongolian herders on the edge of the unforgiving Gobi desert. At the heart of this tale is the difficult birth of a rare albino camel, Botok, and his subsequent rejection by his mother, leaving the infant in serious danger of starvation.
Directed by Munich Film School students Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni, this film represents what the filmmakers call a "narrative documentary". The "cast" of the nomadic family in effect play themselves in a story inspired by their lives and brought into focus by the life and death matter of the rejected calf. But this is not to say the film is not authentic, definitely not: it allows Davaa and Falorni, and more importantly the character-laden family, paint a dignified, captivating portrait of their way of life.
The sense that this is their story is stamped on the film from its opening, the wily Great Grandfather Janchiv tells the legend of the camel directly to camera - of how the deer stole the camel's antlers, an explanation for the camel's tendency to stare at the horizon: they are waiting for its antlers to be returned.
The filmmakers had only 23 days in which to capture this unique culture, firstly because of the briefness of the camel-birthing season, and also due to the unpredictable nature of the spring winds in the Gobi desert. To raise the stakes even higher the crew only had 10 hours of Super-16 film stock with them.
Despite such restrictions the film never once feels rushed, and in fact its peacefulness and willingness to unobtrusively observe the details of the family's everyday life is its strongest attribute. Their routines of preparing food, burning wood, making offerings to Buddha, and feeding the goats (during which one of the grandfathers humorously mixes up which identical-looking lamb goes with which mother - much to his wife's amusement) are completely unaffected. The main "plot" concern for Botok's survival never supersedes these moments, such as the entertaining and honest interactions between the four generations as they sit down and eat in the sturdily constructed brightly coloured Yurt (tent).
After the disconcertingly drawn out birth of Botok the family's lightly comedic yet heart-touching attempts to get the mother to accept the white colt and let it feed on her milk fail. Despite their cajoling and Botok's insistent following and terribly rejected whining for her attentions, the mother will not let him near, even violently kicking him away.
It is fascinating to see the simple, experienced calm wisdom of this people's approach to what could be a disaster for them, their livelihood, their way of existence, is tied to these animals. It becomes more apparent to the family, after bottle-feeding also fails, that they must resolve the problem the way they always have, by ritual.
Therefore the brothers, (the appropriately named) Dude and his younger brother, Ugan, barely seven years old, set off on incongruously large camels some 50km to the nearest town to find a violinist who will play in the traditional Hoos ritual to reunite mother and colt. Amusingly they are also instructed by one of their grandfathers to buy some batteries for his much treasured radio.
The two brothers accept their task with the same familiar calmness and set off across the wide, immense and grimly beautiful expanse of the desert. The interplay between the two boys and the trappings of the (more) modern world they come across are telling - at a stop off along the way they watch cartoons on a television, the younger is fascinated, while the older, less so, informs him that a set would cost 20-30 sheep. The deftness of the filmmaking never mocks or belittles: this is their reality, a reality, you gradually become aware, is much closer to the world that surrounds them than we could ever claim.
The actual ritual itself is a memorable, fascinating experience. Legend has it that the traditional song will reunite the rejected colt with its mother, and once the baby has fed the camel will weep. The mother camel seems to know what is about to happen as the violinist approaches, embitteredly reacting against him. He places the large box-like instrument on the mother's side, and the mere sound of the echoing, haunting wind passing through it puts her into a trance, an almost spiritual calmness suddenly comes over her. The family watches on, the men smoking.
This film is most certainly not a cute Disney-style take on animal-human interactions. Though perhaps the ailing studio should take note of the film's truthful, yet honestly emotional core, that resonates with the audience long afterwards, and that makes it a joy to watch.