Mongolian herders in the Gobi desert have a crisis on their hands when a newborn camel is rejected by its mother. Ancient ritual decrees that they send for a musician who will not only lure the recalcitrant mom into providing milk, but make her rue her nonmaternal ways in "The Story of the Weeping Camel."
When Italian film student Luigi Falorni heard about the Mongolian Hoos ritual from fellow student Byambasuren Davaa, the duo decided to take a camera to Davaa's native land, and, with inspiration from Robert J. Flaherty's "Nanook of the North," make a 'narrative documentary.' Like Zacharias Kunuk's "Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner," "The Story of the Weeping Camel" gives the viewer an inside look at an exotic lifestyle in a remote location which, after hundreds of years, is only recently being impacted by modern civilization. Davaa and Falorni's central drama may be slower paced than Kunuk's murder story, but it is every bit as primal.
The filmmakers located a family of herders where four generations lived together in three yerts, beautifully appointed yet simple round tent structures. Outside are their 60 camels and 300 sheep, all 50 kilometers from the nearest settlement. Arriving in early March, camel birthing season, Davaa and Falorni were blessed when the second birth turned out not only to be a case of the rejection they were seeking, but one of another rarity - a snow white baby, Botok (for dramatic purposes, Botok is the last baby born in the story).
Maternity surrounds the nature-revering Mongolian nomads. Great grandmother Chimed is the nurturing cook who always has a pot of milk heating. She also cares for the youngest family member, a pigtailed toddler, while mother Odgoo works with the animals outside. Young lambs are treated as family pets when they are not being nuzzled by their mothers. During the day, the family sits and watches respectfully as the camels birth their calves, but new mother Ingen Temee has a difficult labor lasting two days and the men intervene to deliver Botok. Botok struggles to its feet, but Ingen Temee ignores her child, pushing it away from her udders and finally running off altogether. Botok's cries are heart-breaking and a worried Odgoo and her husband Ikchee attempt to get the mother to accept her child to no avail. Odgoo feeds Botok milk from a horn, but he will not survive his heartbreak. Dude is tasked with riding a camel to the settlement to procure a violinist for the Hoos ritual and buy supplies. An excited Ugna is given permission to accompany his older brother.
After getting a taste of TV and computer games, the children return home, followed a few days later by violin teacher Munkhbayar Lhagvaa. The ritual is performed, with Odgoo singing 'hoos' to violin accompaniment as she strokes Ingen Temee's flank. Falconi's camera closes in on the tears of the mother who now allows Botok to nurse.
"The Story of the Weeping Camel" is rich in family life and traditional lore. Falconi's images, featuring the natural pastels of the landscape and the bright colors of man-made adornments, are beautiful. The peaceful sounds of desert life and camel lore recounted by two generations of grandfathers are soothing, as is the strange music that comforts Botok's mother and stills his cry. The story ends with a comic twist in which another youngster's need will startle the natural silence.
It is springtime in the remote Gobi Desert of Mongolia and birthing time for the herds owned by the nomadic families eking out an existence in the harsh locale. One of the extended families is facing a crisis when one of the mother bactrians (the two hump kind of camel), Ingen Temee, has a very hard time delivering her first. After days of labor and with the help of the entire nomad family, she finally finishes the job but, to the chagrin of all, rejects her newborn, all-white colt. They must get mother to accept her baby, Botok, by whatever means they can in the “The Story of the Weeping Camel.”
Filmmakers Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni have created a “narrative documentary,” much in the spirit of the groundbreaking works of Robert J. Flaherty (“Nanook of the North” 1922), that brought them and their team of Munich film students to the wilds of the Gobi. Upon their arrival, they sought out and found (among several volunteering clans)a nomadic family to be their subject and the cameras started rolling. They were at the mercy of fate but had an amazing bit of luck when they chose a family that has a camel that would have a particularly arduous birth. The filmmakers provided guidance and advice to the human characters but the ordeal of the delivery, the subsequent rejection of the baby and the struggle to make mom be a mom becomes the core of “The Story of the Weeping Camel.”
The nomadic family understands the repercussions if they cannot get the new mother to accept her baby. He will, surely, die from sorrow despite the efforts of the shepherds to force the babe to feed. They try everything they can and know to get mother to accept child, even tethering them together. Nothing works. Finally, out of desperation, the family sends their two sons, Dude (Ehnkbulgan Ikhbayar), and barely-big-enough-to-ride Ugna (Uuganbaatar Ikhbayar), on the 60+-kilometer journey to a distant village to procure the services of a shaman-musician. His music, with spiritual songs of encouragement, may help the mother camel, Ingen Temee, accept her albino offspring, Botok.
“The Story of the Weeping Camel” is an unusual melding of narrative drama with real life theater. That the young filmmakers were able to fall into a circumstance as perfectly timed as the birth and rejection of little Botok by his mom should be considered a good omen. The team utilizes the fate of the little camel in telling a positive story of survival and perseverance. Davaa and Falorni and their young troupe have traveled halfway around the world and plunked themselves into an environment that gives stranger in a strange land new meaning.
The extended family that is selected as the focus of a look at nomadic life on the vast Gobi Desert are a personable group of wanderers with their sturdy yurts (semi-permanent tent like structures with, literally, all the comforts of a simple home) and herds of sheep, goats and the long-haired twin-humped camels. This is a look into a primitive existence that has survived, unchanged, for millennia – with the exception of granddad Aamga’s (Amgaabazar Gonson) battery-powered radio. It is a tough life for the locals but one that they are well suited to survive and thrive in.
The National Geographic Society was directly involved in the making of "The Story of the Weeping Camel” and should get good mileage out of it at the theaters and beyond. It is such a beautifully rendered film, shot in digital video, that it should be seen on the big screen. I can see it as a school outing for students everywhere. The bactrian camels are also a heck of a lot nicer and prettier than the one-humped dromedaries I’ve come across. And, little Botok is the cutest. I give it a B.
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