"The Story of the Weeping Camel" is a Mongolian filmmaker's poetic spin on the documentary genre, telling the story of the birth and difficult life of a rare white camel and the family that cares for it.
By ANDREA GRONVALL
Some years ago I was lucky to catch one of the last performances by the late great French-cinema actress Delphine Seyrig, who graced Ulrike Ottinger's long, rambling film "Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia" with considerable star wattage. That movie was a curious hybrid, starting out as adventure, flowering into a lesbian romance, and then roughly after an hour or so, taking a long detour toward ethnography. Not much of the plot and none of the other actresses opposite Seyrig remain in my memory banks, but the images of Mongolia are crystalline the nomadic herders, their impressively furnished yurts, and a mesmerizing vista of high desert plain under a cerulean heaven. I'd never seen anything like it.
So, last September during the Toronto International Film Festival, when the buzz grew about an unusual new documentary from Mongolia (by way of Germany) called "The Story of the Weeping Camel," I was keen to see it but even two additionally scheduled screenings couldn't accommodate all the press and industry pass holders queuing up to get in. At last, ThinkFilm is launching the film's New York commercial run, and, happily, the wait has been worth it.
|THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL|
|Written and directed by: Byambasuren Davaa, Luigi Falorni.|
Cast: Janchiv Ayurzana, Chimed Ohin, Amgaabazar Gonson, Zeveljamz Nyam, Ikhbayar Amgaabazar, Odgerel Ayusch, Enkhbulgan Ikhbayar, Uuganbaatar Ikhbayar, Guntbaatar Ikhbayar, Munkhbayar Lhagvaa, Ariunjargal Adiya, Dogo Roljav, Chuluunzezeg Gur.
Cinematography: Luigi Falorni.
Edited by: Anja Pohl.
In Mongolian with English subtitles.
Related links: Official site
|Angelika Film Center
18 West Houston at Mercer St.
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Official festival site
Although squarely in the documentary genre, "The Story of the Weeping Camel" sports a few dramatic touches, in that it does employ re-enactments of some events that happened in the lives of the Mongol family at its center. Furthermore, this particular family and their camels were, in a manner of speaking, "cast," in that they were chosen by co-directors Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni as the best fit for a story idea that was based on a movie Davaa remembered from her childhood.
Although her grandparents were nomads, Davaa was born in Ulaanbaatar, and grew up to work in public television and enroll in the Mongolian Film Academy before heading to Europe to study documentary production at the Munich Film School. There she met Falorni, who hails from Florence and was pursuing cinematography at the same time he was specializing in the documentary form. Together they undertook an arduous journey to the Gobi Desert to capture an event during the spring birthing season: a legendary ritual where a traumatized camel would be soothed into recovery by a folk musician, and be so healed that the animal even shed tears.|
The family chosen by the filmmakers spans four generations, which adds to the feeling of a story as old as time. Weathered great-grandparents and grandparents are still hale and working the clan's spread, while the attractive young parents divide their time between the livestock and their own brood of three cute and sweet kids. The camera doesn't seem intrusive because its subjects are totally unself-conscious. The daily rhythms of a rural life unfold at a measured pace, and such domestic conflicts as exist are quickly resolved: babysitting grandma comforts the little girl crying for her mother; doting dad patiently fends off his younger son Ugna's desire for a television.
The filmmakers' careful selection of such a photogenic family aside, serendipity played an equally important part in the direction of the narrative. The drama kicks in when a mother camel experiences an exceedingly difficult birth; the herders, trying to ease her struggle, are amazed when the colt that eventually emerges is completely white, a rarity. It's like a bad omen, because the mother camel immediately rejects her baby, refusing to let it feed, and walking away whenever the colt, bleating forlornly, approaches.
The family goes to great lengths literally to solve this problem. Ugna and his older brother Dude are sent on a quest to the nearest settlement more than fifty miles away to bring back a musician capable of performing the shamanistic curing ritual. Here the relationships between human and animal come into even sharper focus, as the baby camel's struggle to reconnect with its mother contrasts with the pull of modern culture on young Ugna, dazzled by the coveted Gameboys and TV sets for sale in the village. The care the herders expend on their camels parallels the solicitousness of the relatives and strangers the boys encounter on their mission. Mongolia is a very large place, and yet, no matter where one turns, it would seem there is community and a natural sense of order.|
And this hints at the appeal for Westerners of this tale. Beyond its exotic locale, heartwarming human subjects and the values of harmony and cooperation they embody, the resonance of this story comes from its origins in fable particularly the anthropomorphism of the mother camel and her colt. The journey of pain and reconciliation they experience stands in for the human condition.
The filmmakers claim they were directly inspired by the work of Robert Flaherty, who with his seminal "Nanook of the North" fused archival documentation of a remote culture with deliberately orchestrated events that put the lives he filmed in a framework his audiences would understand. Not exclusively reality, but certainly not fiction, "The Story of the Weeping Camel" soars above the docudrama genre so popular on television. It's not exactly ethnography, since it doesn't aim to be a sociological examination of a culture but how appropriate, in a land where shamanism is still alive, that this documentary flirts with the mythic. It may well be best described as poetry: a ballad about coming of age and the triumph of hope, sung by human voices and the animal spirit.
|JUNE 4, 2004|
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