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THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Ingen Temee, Botok, Ikhbayar Amgaabazar, Odgerel Ayusch, Enkhbulgan Ikhbayar, Uuganbaatar Ikhbayar, Munkhbayar Lhagvaa
Directors: Byambasuren Davaa, Luigi Falorni
Audio: Mongolian Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or Stereo Surround
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Color, 1.77:1 widescreen
Studio: New Line
Features: Photo gallery, trailers
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: January 25, 2005

"Nowadays, mankind plunders the earth more and more in search of her treasures.  This drives the spirits away that should protect us."

Film ***

Life on earth is enduring and persistent.  From the extreme winter chill of the Antarctic sub-continent, to the inky depths of the abyss, to the barren wastelands of the arid desert, life always finds a way to thrive in some of the most inhospitable regions of the world.

The Story of the Weeping Camel documents the miracle of life and birth in one such region - the harsh Gobi Desert of remote southern Mongolia.  This film follows the hardships and tender joys of a small family of nomads living in this unlikeliest of realms.  The family consists of elders, a pair of young parents, and their three small children.  Just as important, however, are the family's camels, vital for transport, trade, wool and clothing, and even milk.  The family survives in an interdependent bond with their domestic livestock, which provide sustenance and in turn receive food and shelter from the humble nomads.  Although these lonely desert dwellers are not completely isolated from civilization, travel to the nearest town still represents a significant journey and one not casually made.  So, for the most part, man and beast must rely upon one another for survival.

The story of this film is a dramatic and sad one - the difficult birth of a rare white camel colt and the subsequent struggles of the nomads to unite the young colt with its distraught young mother.  Apparently, the arduous and painful birth has caused the mother camel to reject her newborn colt, which without her nurturing care and milk will assuredly perish.  As surrogate parents, the nomads try to feed the colt, but ultimately, it still requires its mother's affections.  The nomads repeatedly draw from their accumulated cultural wisdom to try to bring mother and calf together but to no avail.  Indeed, the scenes of rejection are almost heartbreaking in their emotional simplicity - the colt crying aloud in its loneliness and sadly shadowing a mother who shuns him.

When all their tricks finally fail, the nomads send their young sons to town to summon the master violinist.  This musician, with his traditional two-stringed erhu (Chinese violin), might finally reunite mother and colt through the performance of a Hoos ritual.  The lyrical experience that is the Hoos ritual thus becomes the film's culminating moment, one that offers some of the most astonishingly touching animal reactions ever captured on film.  This sequence is quite unforgettably tear-jerking, as much for the participants as for viewers.  After all, this film is the story of a weeping camel.

The Story of the Weeping Camel was released as a National Geographic film.  Combining intimate scenes of family communion with frank depictions of the daily labors of everyday life, this film paints an exotic yet honest portrait of survival in the Gobi Desert.  The nomads are shown waiting out sandstorms, attending religious ceremonies, and otherwise occupying themselves with duties on the farm.  The Story of the Weeping Camel may be simple and uncomplicated, but its purity will surely warm the hearts of all who see it.  In fact, the film was even nominated for a Best Documentary Academy Award (losing to Born into Brothels).

Although presented very much as a documentary, The Story of the Weeping Camel is in actuality a docu-drama, with the members of the family portraying screen variants of themselves.  The setting and events are certainly real (even those depicting the calf's birth and its rejection by the mother), but the filmmakers have assembled their raw footage into a distinctive structural narrative that tells a heartfelt story about the necessity of parental love in order to survive in this harsh world.

While The Story of the Weeping Camel may not be a pure documentary, its creators have still captured the beauty and uniqueness not only of the Gobi Desert's wondrous vistas and breathtaking scenery but also seemingly within conventional aspects of daily nomadic life.  In this remote region, this film reminds us that each and every life or birth is miraculous and precious, not to be discarded heedlessly or uncaringly.

Viewers who have enjoyed recent documentaries about the natural world such as Winged Migration or March of the Penguins will truly appreciate The Story of the Weeping Camel.  Narratively, it is the easily the most powerful of these films, and its universality and emotional resonance will have a profound impact that may linger for a considerable amount of time.

Video ****

For a documentary, this film displays superb video quality.  Images are sharp, and colors and skin (or fur) tones are very natural in appearance.  The transfer is also quite solid, too, with little in the way of compression defects.

Audio ***

Dialogue in this film is minimal, and the subtitles are even sparser.  However, background ambiance does provide a true sense of life upon this remote Gobi Desert farm, from the bleats of the sheep to the swirling winds over the arid sand dunes to the mournful cries of the camels.  Of particular note is the song that Odgoo, the nomad mother, sings in the end; it is haunting and timeless.

Features *

This is essentially a bare-bones disc.  Aside from out-of-place trailers for The Return of the King and Elf, there is only a small photo gallery with just over two dozen production stills and photographs.

Summary:

The Story of the Weeping Camel is not quite a documentary yet not quite a fictional film, either.  It represents a hybrid, and a most successful one at that.  With its simplicity and universal themes, this film is ideal viewing for the entire family!

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