Story of the Weeping Camel

The Mongolian film The Story of the Weeping Camel makes virtue of its narrative simplicity and emotional directness. One of the discoveries of last year's Toronto Film Festival, the film engendered a bidding war among distributors–the entrepreneurial New York-based ThinkFilm got it. The film is now in current release but is not doing particularly well even by standards of art film.

We have become so accustomed to animals speaking in voice-over (Babe and just about every other TV commercial) that it's a relief–and one of the film's distinctions–that the main protagonists, a mother camel and its colt, do not utter a word.

To variegate the proceedings, the filmmakers switch back and forth between the camels and the human characters, and while the animals sequences are hauntingly authentic, you feel that some of the human conversations and interactions have been staged for the camera, probably in order to provide some explanation and context to the tale, since the movie lacks voice-over narration.

Set in Mongolia's vast Gobi desert, the film was co-written and co-directed by Mongolian docu filmmaker Byambasuren Davan and Italian cinematographer Luigi Falroni, who met while they were students at the Munich Film School.

They set out to do what they describe as a “narrative documentary,” one that combines actual footage with recreations and staged material. The resulting film centers on a family of nomadic herders (played by real-life herders), who have been living in the same large tent for generations.

The filmmakers observe how one of the family's two-humped Bactrian camels gives birth to a rare white colt, after being in labor for two long and painful days. The “drama” begins when the mother camel refuses to nurse her baby. Rejected by its mother, the colt gets progressively weaker, expressing pain and anguish in the most agonizing noises, while his mother ignores him.

For its survival, the family depends on healthy animals (they also have goats and sheep). Realizing the severity of the crisis, they turn to a traditional ritual for changing the mother's stubborn resistance. A singer-musician is brought from another town and his haunting melodies are expected to move the mother so that she will allow the camel to nurse.

The straightforward account, which for long stretches of time is totally silent, bears emotional power and occasionally visual splendor and lyrical beauty, too. The story goes through all the logical phases of any troubled family relationship, from abandonment and estrangement to forgiveness and reconciliation. You have to be made of steel not to melt down when the mother camel begins to cry and finally agrees to nurse her baby.

With all due respect to the young directors, who claimed to have been inspired by the work of pioneering documaker Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran), their movie doesn't belong in the same league on any level. That said, this anthropologically-oriented film is highly recommended for capturing onscreen a story and lifestyle seldom filmed by Western directors.

The Story of the Weeping Camel also has the distinction of being the first ever-Mongolian film to be nominated for the Foreign-language Oscar. The winner, however, was the Canadian (French-speaking) entry, The Barbarian Invasions, which earlier scooped major awards at the Cannes Festival.