The Story of the Weeping Camel is the half-exotic, half-goofy title of a movie written and directed by Bayambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni. It’s goofy because it sounds vaguely whimsical, like a chapter of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories—or something the Walt Disney Co. might have done in the 1960s. And it’s exotic because at the same time, there’s something stately sounding about it, as if the title embodied the wisdom of ancient folklore.
And that, as it happens, is exactly the case. There’s a legend among the herders of Mongolia that when a mother camel rejects her offspring, if she can be persuaded to accept the calf and let it nurse, her eyes will begin to water. And that’s the task the Mongol family in Davaa and Falorni’s film set for themselves: to make their camel weep.
Weeping Camel is a throwback to filmmakers like Robert Flaherty, who virtually invented documentary films in the early 1920s. Davaa and Falorni have acknowledged their debt to Flaherty, especially his masterpieces Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934). Both of those films showed the struggles of families to subsist in remote and desolate areas—above the Arctic Circle in one and on the Aran Islands of Ireland in the other.
Weeping Camel adopts the same theme, focusing on a four-generation family of Mongolian sheep and camel herders on the edge of the Gobi Desert. There’s even a scene borrowed more or less directly from the master: Flaherty showed the Inuit hunter Nanook enjoying a phonograph record (cutting-edge technology in 1922) at a Canadian trading post. In a sly echo, Davaa and Falorni show the farm boy Ugna (Uuganbataar Ikhbayar) equally enthralled by an animated TV show on a visit to a town 50 kilometers from his family’s nomadic farm.
Like Nanook and Man of Aran, Weeping Camel departs from strict documentary practice by staging scenes and filming a mapped-out story. But then, this sort of thing was not uncommon in the early days; Flaherty did it, as did fellow pioneers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (before they gave up documentaries altogether in favor of fiction films like King Kong and Mighty Joe Young).
The story Davaa and Falorni give us is a simple framework on which to hang their observations. The film opens during calving time among the family’s camel herd. One of the females, after a long and difficult birth, brings forth a snow-white calf. Then, for some reason—maybe a reaction to his color or to the traumatic birth—she rejects him, refusing to let him nurse. The herdsman’s wife, Odgoo (Odgerel Ayusch), tries to hand-feed the calf, but to little effect; the calf begins to languish and seems to be dying. (There’s a scene of the calf crying forlornly, while his mother ignores him, that would melt a heart of iron.)
The family discusses the calf’s plight, and the grandfather announces, “We need a Hoos ritual.” This entails sending the two boys to the town to find a good violinist and then hire the musician to come back and play the ritual; the hope is that the music will induce the mother camel to relent and accept her offspring. There’s sentiment in their decision, of course, but it’s also a matter of hard-headed economics: The family’s life may be fairly comfortable, but it’s also marginal, and every camel counts. They can’t afford to give up on one just because its mother has.
Davaa and Falorni are relatively fresh out of the Munich Film School, and watching The Story of the Weeping Camel feels at times like reading a dutiful master’s thesis. It’s hard to tell if their approach to the film is simple timorousness or mature discretion, but it works. By not shaping the film as aggressively as they might if they were more experienced and sure of themselves, they allow us the pleasure of discovering small moments for ourselves—like the simple beauty of Odgoo singing her baby to sleep while, ironically, the camel outside her door shuns its own lonely child.
Low-key and understated, The Story of the Weeping Camel gives us the kind of glimpse of distant people and places that used to fascinate Flaherty’s audiences in the 1920s and 1930s. Davaa and Falorni show that, in the right hands, the view can be just as fascinating today.