Film students everywhere should be heartened by "The Story of the Weeping Camel." The movie, a lyrical blend of documentary and fiction filmmaking techniques, offers a bold example of the rewards of crossing boundaries -- stylistic, cultural, temporal and even commercial.
As a student at the Munich Film School in Germany, Byambasuren Davaa knew she wanted to make a film set in her native Mongolia. She told a fellow student, Luigi Falorni, about a story she heard while growing up, about mother camels rejecting their young and being coaxed into nurturing them through a nomadic singing ritual. Together they worked on a proposal for a documentary about the practice, which a German television station agreed to finance along with the university.
But Davaa and Falorni kept thinking bigger. Rather than a conventional one-hour TV show, they wanted to create something deeper, more textured, a film that would weave together fiction and nonfiction elements to tell the story not just of one mother camel and her abandoned colt, but of the nomadic way of life and its encounters with modernity, and the fragility of families in general. In the spring of 2002, armed with heavy cameras, a four-person crew and a detailed story outline, Davaa and Falorni traveled to the Gobi Desert, where they would spend nearly a month with one family and their 60 camels, 300 goats and sheep and a few cows. There, they watched and waited as, one by one, the female camels gave birth to their young -- and happily proceeded to nurse them.
To make matters worse, the filmmakers had been delayed by a blizzard, a windstorm and a vehicular breakdown, so they arrived late in the desert; by the time they arrived, many of the camels had already given birth. It wasn't until the final camel's difficult and painful delivery that a mother rejected her colt -- which in this case had the rare snowy white coat of an albino. The most wrenching passages in "The Story of the Weeping Camel," which rivals the melodramas of Douglas Sirk in its unapologetic plucking of heartstrings, feature the wobbly little creature bleating plaintively for his mother, who alternately attacks him and turns away from him with unheeding hauteur.
The main plot points of "The Story of the Weeping Camel" -- the birth, the rejection and the ensuing attachment ritual -- happened while Falorni filmed them. Only the film's connecting story, which features a family of four generations living together in three beautifully appointed yurts, was written by the filmmakers.
Davaa, who with Falorni recently visited Washington as part of a promotional tour for the film, insists that although the scenes of the family working, playing and eating together were suggested by the team's outline, the nomads themselves had ultimate creative control. "My whole approach working with these people was, 'You tell your own story and I will assist you,' " she said through a translator. "We never imposed any of our [own] ideas or any of our words or anything. . . . And they appreciated this approach because they felt [like] artists themselves."
At the most pivotal point in the story, when the scrawny little camel is almost starving to death, the two oldest brothers of the family travel to the nearest provincial center to fetch a musician for the hoos ritual. There the two, Dude and his impish little brother Ugna, revel in the delights of civilization; Ugna is particularly entranced by the lures of ice cream and television.
Today, Davaa said, both boys are in school, but it is uncertain whether they will live as nomads. "This very traditional, self-contained lifestyle is starting to diminish," she said. "There's pressure on those who really would like to continue the tradition. It's much harder to survive, because . . . there are fewer families left, there are many more wolves than before, and weather conditions [have become] very harsh in the last several years. So circumstances are . . . pushing them to change their lifestyle."
Rapturously photographed to capture the harsh beauty of the Gobi and unfolding at a slow, attentive pace suitable to the ancient rhythms of nomadic life, "The Story of the Weeping Camel" joins a proud tradition of ethnographic films that have documented cultures on the verge of extinction. But in its sensitive examination of character -- both animal and human -- it transcends genre to become a deeply affecting allegory about the importance of patience and acceptance in so many relationships, no matter how seemingly natural or preordained. As such, it became a favorite when it screened at festivals last year in Munich and Toronto, where distributors saw theatrical potential in a modest student film that would become a bona fide cinematic Cinderella story.
And what if the chanting ritual hadn't worked? Falorni shook his head, remarking that to cut their losses the team probably would have returned to Germany. Davaa offered that they could have filmed another ritual later in the season, perhaps a chant to encourage surrogate mothers to accept a baby camel that had been orphaned. But one gets the feeling that, after countless setbacks, obstacles and moments of serendipity, they were not about to accept failure as an option. By the time Falorni manned the camera to record the mesmerizing chanting ritual, the stakes were high, not only professionally but personally.
"I [had] started feeling responsible," he said, "because we wanted these rejections, and all the deliveries up until that one had gone so wonderfully. Then we saw this poor little thing being kicked and bitten by his mother, and I was like, 'God, it's our fault.' " Falorni and Davaa admitted that they asked the family whether they were absolutely sure the ritual would work. "They said, 'Yeah, it always works,' " Falorni recalled with a smile. " 'It might take half an hour, it might take two days, but it always works.' " As "The Story of the Weeping Camel" attests, that's true literally and figuratively.
The Story of the Weeping Camel (90 minutes, in Mongolian with subtitles, at Landmark E Street, Landmark Bethesda Row and Cinema Arts Theatre) is rated PG for some mild thematic content.