For most Westerners, the Gobi Desert conjures up long-romanticised images of a vast expanse populated by nomad herders living in cosy yurts. The Story Of The Weeping Camel (Ingen Numsil), Mongolia’s official nomination for the 2004 Academy Awards and a docudrama about one particular family, trades on that romanticism but adds a lyrical touch all of its own.
It is spring in the Gobi Desert in Southern Mongolia and a camel, sweetly named Ingen Tamee, is about to give birth. Four generations of the one family await the arrival of the newborn, a welcome addition to their flock and main livelihood. The colt eventually arrives but it’s white and the mother refuses to accept it. What can the family do as baby Botok wails forlornly and the mother stomps off seeking solitude? Call a vet? No, call in a musician to perform, according to an age-old shamanistic tradition, a ritual to inspire maternal instincts and which confirms that music calms the savage beast.
Mongolian films, or even films about Mongolia, are thin on the ground. One that springs to my mind is German Ulrike Ottinger’s Johanna D’Arc Of Mongolia starring French actress, Delphine Seyrig, in a story that was a road trip which morphed into a lesbian romance. Weeping Camel, directed by Mongolian Byambasuren Davaa and Italian cinematographer, Luigi Falorni, whilst clearly being a documentary where camels are the construct, also has the feel of a children’s fable.
Davaa and Falorni met whilst studying documentary filmmaking at the Munich Film School, where Wim Wenders studied. The Story Of The Weeping Camel was Falorni’s graduation film and allowed him an opportunity to use his cinematography skills as well as direct. Davaa’s grandparents were nomads and she remembers stories about camels told to her as a child. Falorni says he drew inspiration from Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 film, Nanook Of The North, and for him the little starving camel was symbolic of each of us who are also estranged, searching for protection and the need to belong.
The Story Of The Weeping Camel is a small film that has a lot going for it and it comes as no surprise that the film has won many awards at film festivals around the world from Bavaria to San Francisco. The cast of non-actor nomads, who are completely unaffected in front of the camera and the simplicity of the landscape are beguiling. The film has an engaging momentum that swings from the essentially solitary camels to the highly social nomads and highlights the harmony these people have with their environment.