Recently, contemporary films like Himalaya and A Time for Drunken Horses have merged raw cultural material with fictional narratives to create interesting docudramas, yet the genre traces its roots back to 1922 when Robert Flaherty chronicled the Inuit lifestyle in his classic Nanook of the North. Following Flaherty’s well-worn snowshoes, directors Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni record nomadic life in Mongolia in The Story of the Weeping Camel (Die Geschichte vom weinenden Kamel). Camouflaging its narrative structure under National Geographic’s banner, the German film poses as documentary and even competed in the category in the German Film Awards and European Film Awards while garnering the top prize at last year’s Bavarian Film Awards.
The film does contain documentary elements by eschewing narration as much as any Robert Drew disciple, by using non-actors, and by letting the camera roll naturally on Mongolian daily life. But this only moderately obscures the film’s Disneyfied storyline about a cute sad-eyed little camel desperately seeking his mother’s love in order to survive. Set in the high Gobi Desert in the spring, a Mongolian family group of sheep and camel herders monitors the newborn calves. All goes well with the pregnant camels until the final one. After a difficult birth, the first time mother abandons her calf and refuses to nurse it, forming the crux of the drama.
Relying on generations of experience and tradition, the family takes action to save the gangly calf, milking the mother themselves and tying her hind legs to prevent her from kicking her baby, yet things don’t look good unless the mother grows to accept her role. A healing ceremony to bring harmony to the dysfunctional mother must be held, requiring teenage Ugna and his scene stealing younger brother, Ugna, to travel to a nearby settlement to bring a musician for the ritual. This provides additional cultural contrasts between rural and “urban” Mongolian life and an opportunity for a crowd pleasing finale that literally brings tears to the mother camel and feel-good ones to audience members.
In the hands of typical documentarians the sentimental story would overwhelm the project, yet the filmmakers demonstrate remarkable restraint and patience to deliver the best moments—a narrative-free visual exploration of Mongolian culture. The harshness and beauty of the high plateau life vividly come across, and their lifestyle reminds me of more familiar terrain on the Navajo reservation. Not only are the dress and housing similar to traditional Navajos, but the shepherding customs and close knit family clan ties provide contemporary evidence about the land bridge theory that unites Asia with North America. Non Navajos will find plenty to identify with; however, like the times a young child is left with his grandmother. We’ve all experienced heart-broken infants crying for their mothers, and this connects directly with the central camel story.
The visuals allow us to experience traditional Mongolian life directly and take part in intimate rituals. Much of this is due to the trust that the indigenous family affords the filmmakers, which certainly is due to Mongolian native director Davva. Although the story may seem to some contrived or strictly due to good fortune, Davva sensed that they would have an opportunity to capture the traditional ceremony, as she reveals in an interview:
“The musical ritual is being used in several cases. Of course we wanted the mother-colt problem to happen. But we knew that at least one occurrence will happen, either after the death of the mother camel through sickness, or after the death of a colt by wolves.”
In essence The Story of the Weeping Camel charms audiences of all ages with its family values while supplying sufficient cultural material to educate without preaching. Universal themes about gaining trust and developing healthy relationships dominate while the contrast between traditional life and progressive modern lifestyles looms. After all, young Ugna is fascinated by television and the ominous presence of a satellite system is seen during the closing credits. Once again the question remains on how long traditional indigenous lifestyles can withstand the encroachment of the modern world, but this crowd pleasing film unobtrusively allows us a worthwhile 90 minute experience in the old ways.