REPORTS FROM THE FIELD by people who have encountered either the poster, the newspaper ad or the trailer for "The Story of the Weeping Camel," all of which feature adorable close-ups of -- no surprise here -- a camel, indicate that this will be, at least for animal people (and you know who you are), a movie with an awww factor off the charts. Not that I mean to be cynical about the film. That is virtually impossible, given the enormously likable screen presence of both the titular beast and her newborn baby, both of whom are compelling central characters in the action of this poetic documentary.
Did I just say poetic documentary?
That's right. Setting out to record a Mongolian tradition in which nomadic herders play music as a means of breaking through to a mother camel who has, for some reason, refused to nurse her young -- a phenomenon that is apparently not that uncommon -- "Weeping Camel" is both a documentary of an obscure, ancient ritual and a love story. Modeling their "narrative documentary" after the partly scripted early works of documentarian Robert J. Flaherty ("Nanook of the North" and "Man of Aran"), filmmakers Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni combined elements of reportage with an imposed storytelling structure that gave shape -- and ultimately real drama -- to their haunting little film (see Film Notes on Page 44).
Using both neutral observation and the occasional reconstruction of events in the daily life of a multigenerational family of Mongolian camel farmers in the Gobi desert, "Weeping Camel" has the look of verisimilitude, but the feel of fiction.
Much as the National Museum of Natural History's exhibition "Modern Mongolia: Reclaiming Genghis Khan" did two years ago, "Weeping Camel" presents an insightful picture of a culture caught, sometimes precariously, between the pull of tradition and the forward march of time. Even as it shows us how little has changed over the centuries in the life of a contemporary yurt-dwelling herder, the film also shows us how such conveniences as eyeglasses and battery power -- and the lure of video technology, especially for the young -- have been incorporated into the lives of its subjects.
Yet this is not, at heart, an ethnographic film, although part of its power derives from anthropological portraiture. What it follows is, in essence, a crisis of estrangement between a mother camel who has rejected her baby, for reasons unknown. The resolution of the crisis, brought about by the drafting of a musician from a settlement several miles away to ease the two back together through plaintive song, is the true subject of the film, which climaxes in the episode of maternal "weeping" referred to in the title.
Whether those fat, wet tears are the result of some physiological change having to do with lactation or whether they have to do with something more emotional, more universal, connected with the reunion of a mother and child -- is almost not a question, in this strangely moving film, you want to know the answer to.
THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL (PG, 90 minutes) -- Contains scenes of nude bathing and a birthing camel. In Mongolian with English subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row and the Cinema Arts Theatre.