- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

The extraordinary new documentary feature “The Story of the Weeping Camel” will introduce new generations of moviegoers to the inherent and awesomely expressive tearfulness of Bactrian camels. Filmed during the calving season of 2002 in a herding community of Mongolia’s southern Gobi desert, “Camel” deals with a situation of fundamental mammalian urgency: the need to reconcile a mother to a newborn, which she repeatedly rejects in the aftermath of a grueling birth.

The movie recruits an authentic, exceptionally attractive family of herders to illustrate this crisis and resolve it in a traditional way that involves a modest amount of contrivance. After exhausting all the home remedies at their command, the family resorts to a therapeutic open-air concert, in which a musician serenades the troubled beasts on his violin while family members, notably a young mother named Ogdoo, chant a plaintive phrase. This treatment appears to work, giving the movie a sublime fadeout sequence of mother and calf finally at ease with each other.

Distributed, fittingly, in association with the National Geographic Society, “Weeping Camel” was discovered during the Toronto Film Festival last August. It grew out of the graduate school partnership of a young woman from Mongolia, Byambasuren Davaa, and a young man from Italy, Luigi Falorni. Now 33, they began collaborating while enrolled at the Munich Film School.

Although born and raised in the city, Miss Davaa had spent summers with a nomadic set of grandparents. She had the personal connections (and language fluency) that made it possible to contemplate a documentary fable that relied on a real herding family.

Mr. Falorni, who supervised the photography, proves admirably responsive to both settings and individuals. There are breathtaking sights and sounds throughout the movie. Patience and luck reward Mr. Falorni with such fundamentally eloquent images as camels dipping their heads into the foreground to drink from a stream while another group of animals is framed in the background. No movie since “The Black Stallion” has achieved a comparable, uncanny sensation of intimacy with particular animals. The sound recording enhances the immediacy of many impressions by proving exceptionally sensitive to wind, voices and animal cries.

Although nothing is explained through conventional narration, you feel like such a privileged interloper that certain formalities can be suspended. For example, as the movie unfolds, one registers the maternal assurance of Ogdoo, whose toddler Guntee wails when she’s out of his sight. She croons him to rest in one lovely domestic interlude with a lullaby that would make it to the top of the charts in a perfect world.

The charm of her resourceful older boys, Ugna and Dude (about 7 and 13, respectively), also proves irresistible. They ride off on camels at one point to do some shopping and negotiating in the nearest center of population, about 31 miles away. This sequence helps to clarify how much of the modern world is within reach of a family that still prefers a traditional, rural existence.

The nearness is underlined in an effective comic way by Ugna’s attraction to television, a sidelight that eventually gives the movie a witty kicker. A welcome group of family portraits identifies everyone by name prior to the end credits including the mother camel, Ingen Temme, and her babe, Botok. If any of these names start popping up soon in school rooms or attached to pets, we’ll know for certain that “The Story of the Weeping Camel” has had a generational impact. With or without such homage, it deserves to become a uniquely cherished documentary classic.

****

TITLE: “The Story of the Weeping Camel”

RATING: PG (Essentially suitable for all ages; elements of natural candor, including a sequence about camels giving birth)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Luigi Falorni and Byambasuren Davaa. Cinematography by Mr. Falorni. Sound recording by Marc Meusinger. Editing by Anja Pohl. Dialogue in a Mongolian dialect with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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