Byambasuren DavaaLuigi FalorniOscar-winning
The Story of the Weeping Camel
Medium: film
Year: 2003
Director: Byambasuren Davaa, Luigi Falorni
Writer: Byambasuren Davaa, Luigi Falorni, Batbayar Davgadorj
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, documentary
Country: Germany, Mongolia
Language: Mongolian
Format: 93 minutes
Website category: Asian
Review date: 9 March 2013
It's a Mongolian film about nomadic shepherds in the Gobi desert. It was Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary and technically it's a docudrama, i.e. a re-enactment of real events in documentary style.
It's nice. I wouldn't rush out and start forcing it on strangers, but I enjoyed it.
It feels like a documentary, which is the important thing. It doesn't really have a plot. There's a camel that rejects its baby and everyone's trying to get them back together again. That's it. The shepherds don't start fighting each other, the camels stay tethered where they're supposed to be instead of running off into the desert, etc.
Instead we're simply spending time in its world. This is pleasant. There's no urgency, but this doesn't matter and it's interesting to see what it's like to be a Mongolian shepherd. We have two sets of grandparents, one set of parents and three small children. One's a toddler. They're living in the middle of a desert spending all their time looking after animals and you'd think they were about as far from civilisation as you can get... but you'd be wrong. They have binoculars and reading glasses. They're a camel ride away from schools, motorbikes, shops, televisions and so on.
They're normal people, basically. The children are especially good. Everyone's just being themselves, with no acting required, and the children are instantly recognisable as being the same as all children everywhere. The baby-tethering made me laugh (I'd cry too!) and I can't say I'm keen to live their lifestyle in the middle of the desert (although you can buy specialist holidays that let you do it for a week), but the animals are adorable. Sheep! Lambs! Awwww... The film's not going for the cuddly cute factor, thank goodness, but even so you'd have to be made of stone not to enjoy having all these animals around you. The baby animals are fun partly because we get to see their personalities, such as the aggressive way in which that lamb suckles.
It's obviously all about the camels, though. They're so weird-looking and inscrutable, yet we get really close to them. It's impossible not to empathise with a baby who's being kicked, bitten and pushed away by its mother. You can read their body language and their voices. It would seem that, like guinea pigs, they're so impassive-looking that all those weird Star Wars noises they make are really important to them. They sound like mournful foghorns, or perhaps broken carburettors. We also really do see that Weeping Camel, by the way. The title's not kidding.
The shepherds go to considerable effort to try to save the rejected calf, including one plan so loopy that you'd think there's no way in the world that it could possibly work... and yet...
Interestingly, there's no narrator. This is mildly disorientating. When spending a lot of time watching animals interact in a documentary style, one expects to have a narrator explaining everything to you. However there isn't one. There's no David Attenborough. No one's telling you what to think, or interpreting what's on screen for the slow of thinking. Thus you're being forced to do all the work yourself, trying to interpret camel body language and hence, I think, getting more involved.
Incidentally, the director, Byambasuren Davaa, is Mongolian and currently living in Germany. This is merely one of her docudramas which have Mongolian nomadic people playing themselves, but it's the only one to date to have been Oscar-nominated.
It's a slow, low-intensity film, but everything and everyone in it is either likeable or downright charming. The Mongolian culture is interesting. They like music, by the way. Meanwhile the fly-on-the-wall documentary feel is flawless, despite the fact that it's a recreation. Most importantly though, the camels are a strong, empathic central element, easily supporting the whole movie and giving it an ending that's attracted praise so strong as to look, frankly, to me hyperbolic. Here are some review quotes from the DVD's front cover. "Magical and touching... a genuine miracle." "Absolutely priceless." "Sublime... astonishing..." I wouldn't go that far, but it's sweet and, in the end, heartwarming.