Well, this film’s about as far from action-packed as you’re likely to get — and no, the title isn’t allegorical, it’s quite literal. This really is a movie about a weeping camel. Set in Mongolia, The Story of the Weeping Camel looks in on the life of a family over the course of one spring when, among other events, a white camel is born to a mother who rejects the colt. According to legend, the solution to this dilemma is to have a violinist play for the mother camel. If she weeps, then she will accept the colt.
That’s really all there is to the concept behind this film, which is called a documentary, but actually is perched somewhere between a documentary and a narrative film, owing to its dramatic arc. While this might sound like a pretty daring departure from the world of the straightforward documentary, it’s a concept that’s as old as the hills, in documentary terms. There’s very little here that wasn’t used by Robert Flaherty in his famous 1922 Nanook of the North (a film whose authenticity has been the subject of some debate because of Flaherty’s manipulations of his “actors” and locales). And as drama, the film pales in comparison to Merian C. Cooper’s and Ernest B. Shoedsack’s 1927 Chang, which built its examination of life in northern Siam around an elephant attack that now seems like a template for their more famous narrative film, King Kong.
The story, however, is mostly just the hook on which to hang an examination of a way of life that’s hard to imagine still exists in the 21st century — and one which the film suggests cannot last much longer. The crux of the drama lies in sending the family’s two young sons, Dude and Ugna, to “civilization” to obtain the services of a violinist. There’s an early hint of the encroachment of modernity when the grandfather asks the boys to bring back some batteries for the radio, but that’s the tip of the iceberg.
Along the way, Ugna finds himself enchanted by the wonders of television — something that Dude rules out as a possibility for them, since a TV set must cost a good 20 or 30 sheep, while electricity “probably” costs a whole flock. But the taste for such a diversion is hard to dismiss, and it’s a taste that Ugna brings back to the family’s yurt, along with the promise of the violinist, who himself arrives not on camelback but on a motorcycle.
How all this plays out — along with the question of the fate of the baby camel — is what gives this simple yet charming film its appeal.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of The Story of the Weeping Camel on Sunday, April 10 at 2 p.m., in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the second light onto Thompson St., and follow to end.)]