The unusual semi-documentary The Story of the Weeping Camel employs the technique of Nanook of the North filmmaker Robert Flaherty to capture natural drama as it happens and accurately recreate or arrange the rest with a cast of non-professional actors. The film begins, puckishly, with a family elder speaking directly to the camera: ""So now, my children, I'll tell you the legend of the camel..." Indeed, the ensuing story wields the power of legend, wedding right-place-at-the-right-time ethnographic documentation to narrative expediency, climaxing with a magical confluence of two real families.
Directors Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni offer up the exotic lifestyles of people and camels living in the harsh isolation of the Gobi Desert. Despite the difficult conditions and the slow but steady encroachment of modern media, daily life in and around the tent-like yerts of Mongolian nomads remains upbeat and prayerful. Crisis comes to one family when one of their bactrian camels (Ingen Temme), after a difficult labor, turns away from her offspring. The rejection proves devastating: refused the milk of its mother, the white calf (Botok) likewise refuses the milk offered by the human family. If mother and child cannot be reconciled, the baby will likely die.
The four-generation family, which displays a range of artistic talent to match its skill with livestock numbering in the hundreds, determines to perform an age-old musical ritual to persuade the mother camel to turn to her child. Mother Odgoo (Odgerel Ayusch) and father Ikchee (Ikhbayar Amgaabazar) send their sons Dude (Enkhbulgan Ikhbayar) and Ugna (Uuganbaatar Ikhbayar) into the nearest city, some 50 kilometers away, to collect a violinist for the ritual ceremony which is the camels' last hope for family unity. In the process, of course, the human family draws closer.
The Story of the Weeping Camel is a sort-of remake, inspired by a nature film on the same subject which indelibly impressed Davaa in her youth. The filmmakers gambled on finding the conditions they needed to document: a suitable human family and a birthing season crisis which would call for the crucial musical ritual. Luckily, they found both, and the resultant footage is potent: from a camel walking around with its baby half-out of its hindquarters to the ritual climax, which isn't Busby Berkeley but a pretty good musical number all the same. Though the production value is too smooth to suggest complete documentary authenticity, and the pace can be tryingly slow given the simplicity of the story, Davaa and Falorni achieve some touching and even thoughtful results.
The Story of the Weeping Camel gives us pause about the contrast between tradition and globalization (represented by the allure of TV and the omnipresence of corporate logos), and reminds us that a simpler lifestyle serves outer and inner peace on our planet. A lama announces this theme to the family: "Nowadays, mankind plunders the earth, more and more in search of her treasures...we have to remember we're not the last generation." The filmmakers put forward the sad, lonely nobility of the camel and the warm unity of the human family, adjusting each in the end with a measure of salvation and a hint of defeat.