Friday, May 11, 2018

Neglected Gem: The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003)

The white colt in Davaa and Falorni's The Story of the Weeping Camel. (Photo: Getty) 

The utterly disarming film The Story of the Weeping Camel is a collaboration between Byambarsuren Davaa, who was trained in Mongolian television, and Luigi Falorni, a cinematographer turned filmmaker, each directing for only the second time. Adopting the celebrated working methods of the first documentary filmmaker, Robert Flaherty, they put a family who live in the Gobi Desert on camera and have them enact their own story. Soft-faced Ikhee (Ikhbayar Amgaabazar) and his wife Ogdoo (Odgerel Ayusch) live in one yurt with their children – Dude (Enkhbulgan Ikhbayar), who is perhaps fourteen; Ugna (Uuganbaatar Ikhbayar), a little boy of six or seven; and a girl, Guntee (Guntbaatar Ikhbayar), a toddler. The two sets of grandparents live in adjacent yurts and help with the housekeeping, the children, and the animals – the family raises sheep and camels. Part of what marks the arc of the year for them is the births of the camel colts; the movie focuses on the consequences when a beautiful, rust-colored camel gives birth to a white colt after a hard two-day labor, and then rejects her baby.

The picture begins with one of the grandfathers (Umgaabazar Gonson) telling the children the myth of the first camel, who was created with antlers but loaned them to the deer, and the deer never returned them. The story is meant to answer the question, “Why does a camel always gaze at the horizon?”: it’s still keeping an eye out for the deer that made off with its antlers. As its title suggests, The Story of the Weeping Camel is a documentary with the feel of a folk fable. What happens in it is almost otherworldly. After repeated failed attempts to persuade the mother to give suck to its colt, fearing that the colt will weaken and die (Ogdoo feeds it with milk out of a horn but the baby never drinks its fill), the family sends Dude and Ugna off to the nearest community center – a considerable ride that’s broken up by a visit to family friends en route – to fetch a musician. Plucking a square-cut lute that’s played with a fiddle like a violin, in accompaniment to the tender strains of a ballad sung by Ogdoo in a contralto that seems to contain all the wild melancholy of the restless Gobi sands, the musician calms the camel and, as in a fairy tale, touches her maternal heart. She weeps silently, and for the first time she lets her colt nuzzle her and drink her milk.

The movie seems so simple and direct, and the people Davaa and Falorni capture on camera have such un-actorly presences, that, entrancing as it is, you may not see the artistry in it right away. But it has a carefully laid-out three-act structure and many beautiful images, like one of a storm rising up like mist on the horizon, and another of the camel, tethered to a post and close to her time, on one side of the frame with a full moon on the other side. The camel, with its improbable, mountainous humps and its rich-hued, shaggy mane, its deep, ancient eyes and its nose sniffing the air with lordly hauteur, is a magical camera subject, and the filmmakers take full advantage of her. Artfully but without stress, they juxtapose the camel’s denial of life-giving milk to its colt with the feeding of little Guntee by her grandmother, who has a pot of milk constantly on the fire. They even comment subtly on the way the modern world has begun to intrude on this traditional Mongolian culture. The friends Dude and Ugne drop in on have a television, and Ugna watches a cartoon in mesmerized delight with the other children; his brother has to call him repeatedly to bestir him for the rest of the journey. At the community center store, Ugna inquires about the price of each of the two TV sets – which, his older brother has cautioned him, would cost their parents at least thirty sheep in trade, and far more than that for the electricity needed to power it. When the boys return home and Ugna mentions the TV, Grandfather Amgaa, the storyteller, pooh-poohs the idea, afraid that the boy will do nothing all day but sit and look at “the glass images.” But Ugna is outgrowing his grandfather’s tales; he’s heard them too many times. At the end of the movie we see the little boy watching anxiously for improved reception on their brand-new set while outside the yurt his brother moves an antenna back and forth.

Like its obvious model, Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, The Story of the Weeping Camel observes the spare lives of its characters without trying to look at them as sociological subjects. The family yurts are brightly decorated; they greet their guests, the musician and his assistant, warmly and generously, just as their friends host their sons, serving them tea and home-baked sweets. The movie isn’t about the deprivations of poverty (Nanook wasn’t either), though obviously anyone who lives in the Gobi Desert, a long camel ride away from a community center or even a store, must be close to the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. Those distinctions don’t interest Davaa and Falorni, nor are they interested in romanticizing their characters. They’re drawn to the elemental quality of these people’s lives, and they find the poetry in them.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment