STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL, THE (Geschichte vom weinenden Kamel, Die)


(director/writer: Byambasuren Davaa/Luigi Falorni; cinematographer: Luigi Falorni; editor: Anja Pohl; music: Marcel Leniz; cast: Ingen Temee (Mother Camel), Botok (Baby Camel), Uuganbaatar Ikhbayar (Ugna), Odgerel Ayusch (Odgoo), Janchiv Ayurzana (Janchiv), Enkhbulgan Ikhbayar (Dude), Guntbaatar Ikhbayar (Guntee), Amgaabazar Gonson (Amgaa), Zeveljamz Nyam (Zevel), Ikhbayar Amgaabazar (Ikchee), Chimed Ohin (Chimed), Munkhbayar Lhagvaa (Violin Teacher), Ariunjargal Adiya (Teacher’s Assistant), Dogo Roljav (Relative Aimak I), Chuluunzezeg Gur (Relatives in Aimak); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Natalie Lambsdorff/Tobias Siebert; THINKFilm; 2003-Germany-in Mongolian with English subtitles)

“It’s hard to find anything negative to say about such a sweet picture without feeling like a horse’s ass.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An ethnographic documentary much like Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. The Story of the Weeping Camel is a mixture of fact and fiction with the herders featured being real, and likewise for the live camel birth and the weeping camel crisis. The sparse dialogue was scripted, as were the scenes with the relatives. It’s a project produced in association with National Geographic World Films, that is co-directed by Byambasuren Davaa (whose grandparents are Mongolian nomads) and Luigi Falorni (Italian). It’s set in modern times in the remote part of the Gobi Desert of South Mongolia. The film chronicles the lives of a yurt-living nomadic sheep and goat herding family in the springtime, during the camels’ birthing season. It’s almost totally lacking in dramatic tension (except for the main mother-son camel rejection story!) and is shamelessly manipulative (a weeping camel to gain the viewer’s sympathy!). But these things can be overlooked because it takes the viewer into places he most likely is not familiar with such as the struggles of maintaining the traditional nomadic culture, for a group of people whose challenges to survive have never been greater because of how the modern world has become so widespread. It then examines the strong family bond that unites and keeps them together for all these centuries. We are able to see how difficult it is for them to cope economically but how spiritually they have gained a strong sense of peace. They are grounded in their strong beliefs in their nomadic way of life and have found additional strength in their closeness with their environment.

The family of four generations worries about a valued newborn white colt surviving without being nursed by his mother’s milk. After the camel has a difficult birth she rejects her baby and the herders have to nurse it by hand. The elderly patriarch asks his grandsons, Dude and the younger Ugna, to go to the village of Aimak and ask the music teacher to perform a Hoos ritual (where the teacher plays the violin while the boys’ mother sings to the camel so it will nurse her baby). The young boys ride for several miles to the village on their camels, where along the barren desert they observe power grid lines. They stop for a rest at a relative’s tent and Ugna is fascinated by their satellite dish and TV, and is mesmerized watching cartoons for the first time. In Aimak a relative takes them to the violin teacher and the boys stop at the busy marketplace, where Ugna buys an ice cream, watches more TV and observes others playing computer video games. There are motorcycles visible everywhere in the village that most of the modern Mongolians use for transportation instead of the rugged camel. The outside world is encroaching on the disconnected nomads, with Ugna being the most vulnerable to these changes.

It’s easy for a viewer in a consumerist country to look fondly at these simple living nomads and wonder if the nomads rich sense of nature and refusal to plunder the earth has more merit than the civilized world’s questionable environmental practices in the name of progress. There are no heavy lessons here, just a story told like a fable about herders and their camels who have both been lost track of in the busy modern world. The camel might be weeping for what mankind lost by not tuning into nature as being a part of himself. It’s hard to find anything negative to say about such a sweet picture without feeling like a horse’s ass.