“The Story of the Weeping Camel” is a documentary. It is important to mention this, because it instantly makes the film more interesting.
A Mongolian family of sheep and camel herders anxiously awaits the last of this year’s birth of camel colts. A healthy colt is born and instantly bonds with its mother, following her around, nipping at her heels, suckling. This leaves one more birth. Checking on the last pregnant camel, the family goes to bed. Waking the next morning, they find that the camel is in the middle of giving birth. The white colt’s front legs are out and its head is following. But the birth is very difficult. Finally, the colt is born and starts walking around. But the mother rejects it, not allowing it to suckle or even come near her. The family realizes this and attempts everything they can to bring mother and child together. Finally, they decide to contact a violinist from the nearby town and ask him to participate in a ritual that should bring mother and child back together again.
National Geographic was involved in the filming in Mongolia, so the cinematography is crystal clear. The barren landscape seems, somehow, beautiful. Close-ups of the various family members break up the landscape a bit, but also add to the beauty of the surroundings. The life certainly appears hard, but it is all this small group of people knows.
The family lives in a small collection of huts lined with rugs. The extended family of Grandpa, Grandma, Father, Mother and three children lives together, passing on the stories and skills they have learned from generation to generation. Relatively shut off from the rest of the world, they amuse each other with reminiscences and crude games.
When they realize that they will need some outside help, a violinist, they send their oldest son, Dude, to a nearby settlement. Ugna, the second oldest, asks to tag along and they embark on their journey. Their first stop is a larger family encampment, connected to power lines. Ugna is immediately transfixed by the family’s television and joins the many children clustered around. At the larger settlement, Ugna asks about the cost of a television. He also experiences ice cream, computer games, and more for the first time.
At times, it is difficult to believe that this is a documentary. Clearly, the filmmakers stumbled upon the story while staying with the family. How else would they know the camel would reject her offspring? After the birth, they follow the story through. An indication that this is, in fact, a documentary, is the visit by the two sons to the larger settlement. As they walk through the village, other villagers stop and look at them, staring at the cameras. The cameras draw their attention. If they were actors, they would look away or otherwise avoid the cameras.
The film paints an interesting portrait of this family. In a very subtle fashion, we get an idea of how the family lives, what they have to deal with on a daily basis and the pros and cons of living in such a remote society. A significant portion of the narrative is devoted to the camels. The cameras follow the mother and child around, depicting their relationship and showing us the problem that the family recognizes. Even though we are unable to communicate with the animals, and they are unable to tell us their feelings, the act of holding a camera on them for so long reveals some of these things through observation.
“Weeping Camel” is an interesting documentary to watch, but I am glad I caught it on DVD. I think I might have been slightly disappointed watching this film in a theater. The cinematography is crystal clear, and the landscape is interesting, but it is fairly monotonous to the eye. At home, the story became more the focus. The Mongolian family became more central to the viewing experience, as did the plight of the two camels.
I’m not sure that very young children would be able to watch this film. The birth of the camel happens on camera. It was almost as difficult to watch this scene as it was to not watch this. Little children might be freaked out by it. Unless you can talk to them about this after watching the film. If not, the PG rating is probably an accurate guideline.
“The Story of the Weeping Camel” is a fascinating glimpse into a segment of the world’s population we know so little about. A great rental.