Movie Reviews
9:36 am
Wed September 22, 2004

The Story of the Weeping Camel

A beautiful film out of time and step with a lesser world outside.

In the Gobi desert, where a nomadic tribe tends its camels like Jay Leno his automobiles, a mother rejects a white calf just delivered with difficulty. The society's initiative to bring mother to nurse the child is the center of an otherwise simple plot of "The Story of the Weeping Camel."

The arresting cinematography (Yes, the desert is stunning even after 90 minutes) and the scrubbed-face happiness of the family are the real stars of this half documentary, half reenactment of a crisis every bit as important to this family as a birth is to a tightly-knit family anywhere in the rest of the world.

And yet a theme appears as I reflect on the happiness of this attractive clan: the emergence of modernism even in Mongolia. In two young men's 50-kilometer journey to find help for the camel, they discover television and computer games. The younger boy, fascinated by the technology, asks his father to purchase a TV. The grandfather gently offers his concern that the boy would be watching fleeting glass images--the case is closed, a powerful reminder of the benign presence of grandparents in this culture, the wisdom of elders, and the fresh-aired innocence of the clan, which will not give itself up easily to modern distractions. Besides, they don't need passive entertainment.

The ceremony to reconcile the mother and calf includes primitive music by a teacher and impressive solo singing by a young woman. No one could possibly turn to TV while watching this transcendent act. "Whale Rider's" heightened sense of the magical in the mundane and the unbelievable bond of young and old is the only other recent film I can think of to approach this film's simple power.

"The Story of the Weeping Camel" is as slow as the culture it shows, so be cautious about bringing restless city children. The story lingers on the actual birth of the white calf, possibly disconcerting to the younger, inexperienced members of the audience. Then why do the film's characters get such joy out of the minor warnings I just gave? It is their life, as blessed and happy as any you will see on film or anywhere else on earth.

The camel's soulful cry will stay with you. As Lafcadio Hearn said, "If you ever become a father, I think the strangest and strongest sensation of your life will be hearing for the first time the thin cry of your own child." And that goes for a camel mother's cry as well.

A beautiful film out of time and step with a lesser world outside.