August 27, 2004

The Story of the Weeping Camel

Directed by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Set against the desolate Gobi Desert in Mongolia, The Story of the Weeping Camel is a simple fable that blurs the boundaries between truth and fiction. Shot on location with a cast of non-professional actors and untrained animals, it's devoid of the ubiquitous trappings of most narrative films. Despite its National Geographic/PBS facade, the film is no less magical than an effects-laden Hollywood flick.

The story concerns a newborn camel rejected by his mother after a particularly arduous labour, and the lengths that a nomadic family goes through to reunite them. While its plot seems pedestrian, the film delivers some of the most heart-wrenching and life-affirming moments on celluloid in recent memory.

Imagine an abandoned baby camel helplessly crying and whimpering alone, while another calf nearby is nuzzling up with her mother. It would take a heart of stone to resist the effect of such powerful images.

Members of a nomadic family portray themselves here, and the film follows their routines and rituals with wide-eyed wonder. Weeping Camel is reminiscent of early ethnographic films such as Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North and Sergei Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico!, as it documents real people performing or re-enacting their activities during the course of narrative storytelling. In contrast to those films, Weeping Camel depicts its cultural milieu with an affectionate clarity rather than a distorting mysticism. Unlike Flaherty or Eisenstein however, the film's co-writer/co-director Byambasuren Davaa is part of the culture she is presenting, as her grandparents are also Mongolian nomads.

The illusion of ethnographic mysticism vanishes as the family's two sons venture into Aimak-a settlement some 50 kilometres away from their yurts-to invite a musician whose performance is vital to the traditional ceremony that will reconcile the estranged mother and child. Viewers get a dose of reality shock here, as sights of power lines, motorcycles, televisions and satellite dishes disrupt what initially appears to be a timeless rustic fable.

With the vast Gobi Desert as its sweeping backdrop, the film has a scope that begs to be seen on the big screen. Viewing it on television would somehow trivialize it because of its visual resemblance to educational documentaries. As the camel of the title finally begins to weep, viewers get to witness a miracle so incredible that it's closer to a religious experience than anything Mel Gibson conjured up in The Passion of the Christ.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.