Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Story of the Weeping Camel, directed by Byambasuren Davaa

The Story of the Weeping Camel 
Mongolia, 2003
93 minutes, docudrama
Director: Byambasuren Davaa

A family of nomads living in the Mongolian desert are in the midst of camel birthing season. After a long and a difficult delivery, the last mother in the herd refuses to recognize her calf, a rare and valuable white camel. When the family's attempts to reconcile the two fail, they send their two boys to find a violinist who can perform a ritual. The trip to town and exposure to technology that they have never seen before (especially television) are a treat and learning opportunity for the younger of the two. Finally they find a violinist, but will they be able to save the calf?

Ethnographic elements

Besides being a compelling story, this movie is a fantastically shot ethnographic film. The filmmakers use long shots with a minimum of dialogue to illustrate the life of these Mongolian nomads: their isolation, their self-sufficiency, their hard work, their relaxation. Where do they get the material to make bridles for the newborn camels? By cutting hair from the mother camel and braiding it! When a sandstorm comes and turns the landscape dark, how do they deal with it? They close their tents and tie the camels, then go out and clean up after it's over. The cinematography emphasizes the routine and matter-of-fact nature of these basic aspects of life, which to me still seemed surprising since I had not thought about it before. That being said, it does seem to be a cleaned-up version of nomadic life, which is only to be expected in a film. There is always editing and polishing that give a different version of life than that which is actually lived.

How animal psychology makes a lot of sense

The story of the mother and baby camel is a detailed portrait of animal psychology. The mother rejects her newborn child after a long and painful delivery. It appears that, in the mother's mind, the baby is associated with suffering and she does not want to have anything to do with it. The ritual for which they need the violinist does not work in any esoteric way, at least as far as I can gather from the film (there may be folk explanations of it that are not explained). First, they demonstrate to the mother that the violin is harmless by hanging the instrument from her hump and letting the wind play it. Then the violinist plays soothing music accompanied by the singing of one of the women in the family. Meanwhile the woman encourages the calf to feed. This ritual results in a new emotional association with the baby, allowing the mother to accept the calf for the first time.

My confusion

Some questions that I had after watching the movie:

1. How was this film created? It seems very convenient that a camel just happened to reject her calf as the cameras were rolling. Did the filmmakers take advantage of an opportunity here, when they were planning to film something else?

2. The two boys, one a teenager and one around 7 or 8, are sent into town by themselves. Is this normal, to let children go off into the desert by themselves? Or was it acceptable because a film crew was with them?

 3. The relationship between the "traditional" nomads and "modern" technology seems to be a theme of this movie. The children are shown coming into contact with "new" technology for the first time and being astounded by it. On the other hand, the incorporation of the TV at the end of the movie is understated and seems to be just another aspect of life for this family. Is the filmmaker trying to make a statement about tradition vs. modernity, or is she doing something a bit more complex (such as demonstrating that there is no reason to see things as "traditional" or "modern," but rather as aspects of life that people creatively take up and use)? The director, Byambasuren, was born in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in 1971. She currently lives in Germany where she studied documentary filmmaking at the Munich Academy of Television and Film. "The Story of the Weeping Camel" was nominated for a "Best Foreign Language Film" Oscar in 2005.

What did you think about the filmmaking techniques? Leave a comment below. 

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