In a middle-of-nowhere area on the fringe of the Gobi Desert (an isolated place that seems to exist outside of time), a nomadic family of shepherds lives a simple, difficult life. The relationship between the family and their animals is full of feeling, somewhere between interdependence and what seems like genuine affection. When one of the camels rejects her newborn calf, getting the mother camel to suckle her offspring becomes the family’s main concern and when all else fails, a traditional musical ritual is performed that delights the family and makes the camel weep.
I know that sounds awful, like some cloying Disney nature film, but Weeping Camel is one of those movies whose virtues can’t be conveyed by a straightforward summary. Its mixture of documentary footage and re-created scenes acted out for the camera has a slow, naturalistic pacing that draws us into the villagers’ lives.
The filmmakers — Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falomi — have said that they were inspired by Robert Flaherty, whose trailblazing documentaries Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934) established the norms of the form for many years. Davaa and Falomi created a film that does have an instructive eye for detail, with long pauses in the narrative that allows the viewer to watch, simply, how these people live.
Though the people emerge as distinct individuals, the best (or at least most intriguing) performance is given by the mother camel, who manages to convey the steadfast truculence of someone who’s been long victimized and has decided to take a stand. Like that other cinematic beast of burden, Bresson’s Balthazar, the camel’s abiding dumbness allows the viewer to project all sorts of emotions and motivations onto her, and the more empathetic viewer will likely find her plight very poignant.
Along with its camel story, the movie suggests that the nomadic lifestyle may be on the verge of extinction. Once it’s decided that a traditional musical ceremony will have to be performed to coax the mother camel into accepting her offspring, the family’s two young sons are sent to the nearest town, some 25 miles away, to fetch a musician. For the brothers it’s like a trip to another world, especially for the youngest who becomes hypnotized when he encounters a television showing cartoons. The seductive pleasures of technology are just around the corner and soon a satellite dish will join the nomad’s meager possessions.
In Mongolian with English subtitles. Opening at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Road, Bloomfield Hills. Call 248-855-9091.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].