Starring Janchiv Ayurzana, Chimed Ohin, Odgerel Ayusch, Amgaabazar Gonson, Zeveljamz Nyam, Ikhbayar Amgaabazar, , Enkhbulgan Ikhbayar, Uuganbataar Ikhbayar, Munkhbayar Lhagvaa, Guntbaatar Ikhbayar.
The Weeping Camel is a graduation feature/documentary film from the Munich Film School which has garnered critical acclaim at Film Festivals wherever it has been shown and displays remarkable talent and skill in the filmmakers. It is a story portrayed with lyrical beauty centred on the lives of traditional Mongolian nomads in the Gobi Desert and is a tribute to a way of life that soon may be gone forever. Mongolian born co-director Byambasuren Davaa is the first generation of her Mongolian family born and raised in the city, and the way of life she and her Italian co-director Luigi Falorni depict in this documentary is one lived all their lives by her grandparents.
The eponymous subject is a story common to the yurt-dwelling traditional camel, sheep and goat herders of the Gobi but highly unusual, even magical, to us citified Westerners. The filmmakers could have melodramatised the story more, or gone the other way into a baldly dry documentary narrative. Wisely, instead, there is a very simple, moving story, recording as it actually happens, with very little needing to be re-enacted for the camera. It is an organic method of documenting real life experiences with the 'actors' being ordinary people doing what they do everyday, that aptly fits the subject matter and is one reason the film is so powerfully affecting on an audience.
It is the camel birthing season for the nomad herding family of Ikchee (Ikhbayar Amgaabazar) and Ogdoo (Odgerel Ayusch), their parents, grandparents and children. They live in close connection to the land and their animals, and each of the sixty camels they own is known by name. Pregnant camel Ingen Temee is the last to give birth, to a rare white calf, Botok. After a prolonged and difficult labour causes her to reject her baby, the family is forced to hand feed the calf with milk in a cowís horn. Itís obvious the calf will die without its motherís nurturing and its crying is heartrending, but the mother kicks her calf away when he tries to suckle. A traditional ritual is the last resort and so the elder son Dude (Enkhbulgan Ikhbayar) is sent with his younger brother to fetch a violin player from the distant cultural centre. Performing the ritual involves singing and playing to the mother camel till she signifies by weeping that she will accept her calf and give him her milk. It sounds extraordinary, but it is so routine in the lives of these nomads that the filmmakers set up their cameras almost certain that they would catch the footage and the story they had hoped for. There has never been a report of a failure of the ritual.
The film moves at a gentle pace, showing the normal routines of family and animal husbandry and we feel we are there in the yurt or outside in the sunset or snowstorms, just observing. There is a sweet indulgence of the children and immense trust which allows younger brother Ugna to accompany Dude to the town to fetch the violinist.
The first strange and ugly indications of civilisation in the electrical poles and TV antennae are echoed in the motley modern clothing of the town children on their bicycles, contrasting with Dude and Ugnaís colourful traditional garb as they ride in on their camels, looking almost organically part of the animals between their two humps. Little Ugnaís fascination with television will have far-reaching effects and itís easy to see how attractive the trappings of town-life are to the young.
The last segment of the film is the ritual, partly transcendental in its dignity and serious tone, part simply accepted matter-of-factly as the right action to take in such circumstances. The intuitive keening of Ogdoo as she sings to the aloof camel mother, the hanging of the horse-head violin on her hump to let the wind tune the animal to its sound and vibration, the upright grace of the violinist as he sits on his stool on the sand dune to play, and the four generations of silent onlookers watching on the bank for the tears of the camel Ė itís moving, riveting cinema.
But itís the brief coda which indicates what will be the ultimate destiny of these simple folk, living in utter harmony with their animals and their desert.
© Avril Carruthers, 25th September 2004
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