August 21, 2004 -- “The Story of the Weeping Camel” (Die Geschichte vom weinenden Kamel) is a kind of politically-correct fairy tale from Mongolia. It has the look of a documentary, but it also has the feel of a scripted story with staged scenes. It is a hybrid semi-documentary film which doesn't use trained actors. The film looks good, making excellent use of location photography on the Mongolian steppes, with great mountain scenery in the background.
The story concerns a family of Mongolian nomads surviving on the fringes of a modern society. They still live in the traditional way, but modern society is creeping in on their lives. The young children are tempted by computer games and television, which they sometimes see in a distant village. The slow-moving story follows the nomads, allowing the audience to see how they live. Most remarkable is their patience. They don't overreact when confronted with a problem, and they don't force a solution. They sit back and observe to see if the problem corrects itself, then they carefully consider their options.
The main problem the family deals with is the behavior of a camel who gives birth to a rare white calf. After a very difficult labor, the mother refuses to suckle her calf. If a solution is not found, the calf will die. They observe the calf and mother, noting that the mother has not corrected her behavior. They intercede with a variety of strategies to try to get the mother to accept her calf. One of the things they try is to milk the mother in order to sustain the calf. Finally, when all else has failed, they seek an unusual remedy to the problem, a ritual which involves chanting and playing violin music to the camel. The idea seems to be to use music to soften the camel's hard heart toward her offspring.
Since there are no violin players (playing a traditional Mongolian two-stringed “horse head” violin) in the family, they must travel to a distant village to find one. Two young boys depart on camels for the distant village. One of them has the amusing name of “Dude” (the kid's real name is Enkhbulgan Ikhbayar). Thus begins the adventure of the weeping camel. I know, it doesn't sound like much of a plot, but it works. I found myself rooting for the camels, which are curiously affecting creatures, more like their American cousins the Llamas and Alpacas, with their huge, soft eyes and gentle nature, than their cantankerous desert-dwelling relatives in Africa and the Middle East.
The film works reasonably well as a travelogue, an interesting glimpse into a culture few outsiders have seen. The film's biggest problem is its glacially slow pace and its painfully obvious political correctness. I mean these people kill animals and eat them. These camels are not just pets. The film also makes it clear that the nomadic way of life has a much lower impact on the environment than urban life. The story is mildly compelling, however, and it does draw you in. This film rates a C+.
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