Mongolian folkways preserved in poetic Weeping Camel.
Thursday, July 1, 2004
A movie doesn’t need green ogres or jet-propelled broomsticks to transport the audience to another world. Take The Story Of The Weeping Camel, a gentle-spirited tone poem about nomadic Mongolian livestock herders in the Gobi Desert. With its wealth of exotic-seeming cultural detail (to Western eyes, anyway), the movie calls to mind the wonderful Inuit saga of a couple of years back, The Fast Runner. But while the Inuit film combined myth and morality play in a genuine epic, Weeping Camel is a simple folk tale, charmingly rendered, and deeply moving in stealthy, unexpected ways.
Weeping Camel is a labor of love for Mongolian-born filmmaker Byambasuren Davaa. The granddaughter of desert nomads, Davaa came up with the idea while studying at the Munich Film School. She and her Italian-born filmmaking partner, Luigi Falorni, went to the Gobi Desert in South Mongolia with the intention of shooting a documentary. But they became so caught up in the experience—the ancient rituals, the natural landscape, the universal humanity of the people—that they decided to shape the material into a fictional story with the lyricism of folklore.
The film features a non-professional cast of nomads playing themselves, a multi-generational clan camped together in gleaming white yurts around a central livestock pen. It’s the birthing season: the goats whose milk provides most of the family’s sustenance are calving exuberantly—to the delight of the herders’ small children. Also bearing young are the herders’ stately, loping, russet-colored camels, whose dense wool is regularly clipped and woven into rope.
The first camel colt of the season is honored with a bridle of brightly colored fabric. But the last to be born, a gangly little white colt, is a hard-luck case from the very beginning. His birth is so difficult, his inexperienced mother rejects him and refuses to nurse him. While the other camel mothers are nuzzling, grooming, and playfully nipping at their newborns, the little white colt is all by himself in a bleak patch of sand, moaning pitifully.
The rejection of the colt is a matter of great concern to the herders, for whom the rituals and traditions of daily life are sacred. If one creature is suffering, the spiritual equilibrium of the whole camp is out of whack. Odgoo (Odgerel Ayusch), herself a young mother, attempts to feed milk to the white colt out of a horn, but it’s just not the same. Finally, two of Odgoo’s sons, reliable young Dude (Enkhbulgan Ikhbayar) and irrepressible little Ugna (Ugnabataar Ikhbayar) mount camels and ride across the desert to a remote government outpost (a combination market town, general store, and folkways center) to bring back the one person who might still save the colt—a cellist.
The plight of the little camel is incredibly moving. But the glimpse under the yurt flap and into the daily lives of the herders is even more fascinating. Outside, it’s a stark, monochromatic landscape where even the camels and goats are the warm colors of the sun and the sand. But the interiors explode with color, from hand-painted wooden furniture and vivid draperies, to the vibrant quilted silk jackets and scarves the nomads wear.
Striking too are the rites to mark the rhythms of life, like the bowl of milk the great grandmother pours outside her door in four directions each morning to honor the natural world. The musical healing ritual by which the mother and baby camel are reconciled is disarming in its sweet simplicity.
Yet, as sweet as it is, there’s an unsettling subtext. The boys find jeeps and motorcycles parked outside the center, where kids wear street clothes and play Game Boys. Weeping Camel preserves the timelessness of its folk culture, even as it reminds us how rapidly the world is shrinking.
THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL (3
Directed by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni
English subtitles. (Rated PG. 90 mins.)