Movie review: 'The Story of the Weeping Camel'

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3-1/2 stars (out of 4)

Anyone who feels like they're drowning in their own polluted, godless, reality-TV-choked, errand-ridden consumerist life will find a momentary escape from modernity in "The Story of the Weeping Camel."

At times, it's hard to believe that this mesmerizing film, which concerns a family of camel-herding nomads living in Mongolia's Gobi Desert, doesn't take place on an entirely different planet--one where the empty ground stretches to a craggy horizon and unbelievable two-humped beasts roam at will.

The details of the family's daily life almost overshadow the story in "The Story," which is simply this: when one of the family's camels refuses to nurse her newborn, their two sons must ride to the nearest civilized outpost to summon a musician for a ritual.

Hmmm, yes, that's a plot, but what exactly is that milky-looking gruel everyone's drinking? And aren't camels, especially when they're given their own close-ups, just crazy emotive?

But before some of you feel guilty for being Zen-resistant, before you curse yourselves for not being able to completely shake your inner monologues and dissolve into what's supposed to be such a love-affirming animal tale, know that the film is really just a documentary about nomads masquerading as a feature about camels. Which is why it's okay to be distracted by the details, and perhaps why its subtext--about the younger generation's real and inevitable loss to modernity--is more effective than the storyline about the camel.

(That and the fact that, as good as the camels are, real people are always more compelling.)

Filmmakers Byambasuren Davaa (a Mongolian whose grandparents were nomads) and Luigi Falorni (an Italian) shot on location, and found a multi-generational family of nomads to play themselves and lend their goats and camels and tents to the effort.

Though some of the events in this "narrative documentary" were planned out, many scenes were unstaged, and the original intent was to make a documentary about how the nomads use musical rituals in camel rearing--which was precisely what happened, to the filmmakers good fortune. "The Story," then, exists in that hazy area where storytelling steers truth--not unlike, well, a reality TV show.

The film's more powerful subtext emerges when the two sons travel from their home and are exposed to the seductive trappings--televisions, motorcycles--that other Mongolians have. Though their own family has a few modern things--a clock, cigarettes, a radio--it's clearly not enough for pesky younger son, Ugna.

While in town, the boys must also get fresh batteries for the family's radio. With a working radio, of course, they might not have needed to call for a live violinist: they might have just tried playing canned music for the camel.

Years from now, when Ugna's working in a factory--perhaps churning out chic Gobi Desert designer collections--he might remember that. And by then he might realize that it wasn't so much whether the ritual worked or not, but that it was a much better bonding experience to have a real musician visit--not just for the camels, but for the family, and us, as well.

"A Foreign Affair"

Written and directed by Luigi Falorni and Byambasuren Davaa; photographed by Falorni; edited by Anja Pohl; produced by Tobias N. Siebert. A ThinkFilm release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:30. MPAA Rating: PG (mild thematic content).
Mother Camel - Ingen Temee
Baby Camel - Botok
Ugna - Uuganbaatar Ikhbayar
Dude - Enkhbulgan Ikhbayar
Odgoo - Odgerel Ayusch
Ikchee - Ikhbayar Amgaabazar

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