The Story of the Weeping Camel is a handsomely photographed ethnographic excursion into the world of Mongolian shepherding. With its story of a Mongolian family’s efforts to save a baby camel from a death resulting from his mother’s rejection of him, this is a hard, hard film to resist.
There’s nothing poetic or metaphorical about the film’s title, for a camel will indeed shed tears before the film’s end, as may some viewers. Still, those watching The Story of the Weeping Camel should be forgiven for being uncertain about whether they’re watching a documentary or a fiction. Compounding the confusion, this film was shown here in April at the Full Frame documentary fest, as one example of this year’s emphasis on “hybrid” films that blur the boundaries between nonfiction and fiction.
Co-directors Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni, a Mongolian and an Italian who met at film school in Munich, Germany, are credited as the film’s writers. However, they insist all of the dialogue was spontaneously improvised by the non-professional cast, a four-generation family of actual shepherds in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Indeed, we see apparently unstaged family scenes, and there’s no faking the difficult delivery of the film’s star camel colt: The mother spends two days in labor and at one point walks around with her offspring’s head and forelegs hanging out of her birth canal.
But on the other hand, the camera always seems to be placed in a perfect position for the action at hand, and the film’s subjects are consistently well-miked. The cameras are also present in two locations, covering simultaneous events. But the most troubling shot to me was a simple cutaway: After a heart-rending shot of the starving, neglected colt, we see an insert of a vulture circling overhead. In the argot of montage–a language, like English or capitalism, that we know without having to be taught–it’s understood that a shot of a vulnerable animal followed by a shot of a vulture means DANGER.
I could be wrong, but I was left with the strong suspicion that the filmmakers had grabbed the vulture shot in a different time and place. Fiction movies do this all the time, but when the technique is used in something that seems like a documentary, it’s clear that we’re moving away from the more or less transparently journalistic techniques that documentaries over the last 40 years or so have observed. What we’re seeing here is a return to the style of the first great documentary maker, Robert Flaherty, an influence cheerfully acknowledged by the filmmakers.
Robert Flaherty was a commercial filmmaker as well as an ethnographer, covering such peoples and cultures as the Inuit (Nanook of the North), Ireland’s Aran Islands (Man of Aran), the South Pacific (Tabu), and Cajuns (Louisiana Story). He would immerse himself into these cultures, identify protagonists, and shape their world into a narrative. While his films are frequently breathtaking, they are also a little too neat and just a bit sentimental about the timelessness of his isolated subjects’ customs. (The production of Man of Aran was brilliantly skewered a few years back in a play called The Cripple of Inishmaan, in which the islanders are presented as impoverished, cantankerous rubes who clamor for the opportunity to star in Flaherty’s movie and get the hell off the island.)
Flaherty’s style fell out of favor with the introduction of lighter, more mobile recording equipment and the political skepticism and anti-colonialism of the 1960s. Although filmmakers began to find ways to avoid imposing their own points of view, the age of austerity may have taken its toll on documentaries’ theatrical marketability. But documentaries are hot right now, thanks largely to the brilliant grandstanding of Michael Moore. With their crowd-pleasing theatrics, it’s no accident that Moore and Super Size Me‘s Morgan Spurlock have faced accusations of presenting arguments with selectively gathered evidence.
However, because Moore and Spurlock are stars of their own films, they’re clearly presenting their own points of view. But Weeping Camel‘s perspective seems to be that of the gawking tourist or a sentimental spread in National Geographic, determined to enjoy a rustic tableau untroubled by messy reality. In the film’s press notes, the filmmakers say they had difficulty finding a multi-generational family to be in their film, because years of drought had forced many families to separate. But instead of making a film about Mongolian families struggling against a drought, they persisted and found several families that were more fortunate. And the winning family was selected because it had the most adorable kids. Indeed, the main youngster in Weeping Camel, a boy named
Uuganbaatar Ikhbayar and called Ugna, is seriously cute and gets to do cute things for the camera.
But, does any of this really matter? Perhaps, to paraphrase Louis Armstrong, there are only two kinds of movies, good ones and bad ones. A good movie gives us–if not necessarily a narrative–a reason to keep watching. The filmmakers do accomplish their central mission in the project, to document the traditional ritual by which Mongolian herders attempt to coax mother camels into accepting their young. Along the way, we’re afforded a glimpse–however idealized–of a remote and vanishing way of life.
Whether The Story of the Weeping Camel is a documentary or a fiction or even a work of outright cinematic chicanery, we viewers still want to know if the baby camel will be reunited with his mother. And my own anticipation of that outcome kept me enthralled with this film, as unreliable as it may be as a documentary.