The Story of the Weeping Camel (U)

Feb 08, 2006
Cranbrook Film Society

As always the notes are my own personal view but probably in terms of a kind of ‘innocent’ enjoyment of the film you’re better off seeing the film and then only reading and thinking about it later…

As James Joyce once said ‘History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awaken’. And though people will undoubtedly find this film charming there is a sense in which it wants to imagine a world outside of history. The inspiration for the co-directors, Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falomi, was the father figure for almost all documentary film makers, Robert Flaherty. In the days before television his 1922 film about the Inuit, ‘Nanook of the North’ (1922) was a huge box office hit. But famously Flaherty re-constructed exciting set pieces like the walrus and seal hunts and Nanook’s ‘igloo’ was built specially without a roof to accomodate Flaherty’s cameras. Nanook also agreed, at Flaherty’s request, to use traditional hunting techniques when he had modern weaponry ready to hand. Flaherty wanted them to be, on the one hand, just like us, a family in a cosy family home, and on the other definitely exotic, a word deriving from the Greek for ‘outside’.

Davaa who is Mongolian herself and whose grandfather was a nomad got the inspiration for the film not from her own family, but from a short educational film that she saw as a child. In that way too the film’s continuity is really with film history. Both films have the same ‘ancient ritual’ at the centre of the narrative and Falomi doesn’t shy from admitting they went to Mongolia looking for ‘a story that would lead to this ritual, and would also show the nomads’ encounter and confrontation with modernity. This was something we thought of in Munich at a writing desk, not out in the desert.’

I’m not sure, however, how extensive the confrontation with modernity is in the film. The young boys sit before the television, a cliched metaphor for western civilisation but one that is far from being the most important pressure on the lives of these nomads. Little mention is made of the global heating that is making winters colder and summers hotter so that there is less grazing and family units are split up, nor of the pressure from the government to get nomads to come to the city to provide cheap labour. Rather like Whale Rider the compass points of the film are children, animals and mystical powers. None of which are likely to trouble audiences with articulate denunciations of the imminent destruction of a whole way of life.

The film is a remarkable technical achievement. Though obviously carefully planned in Germany, it was filmed in just one month, with the filmmakers taking it in turns to sleep so they wouldn’t miss any changes in the relationship between the baby camel and its mother. Filmed on film rather than digital video shots are beautifully composed and the landscapes are stunning. But that very ‘aestheticising’ of the family and their environment, weathered faces set against vast plains, dignifies them but also conjures up comforting feelings of timelessness and transcendance that maybe contemporary documentary makers of films about peoples being pulled into the vortex of globalisation and climate change could be more wary of.

Footnote

I heard an article on the radio the other day that old men amongst the Inuit can no longer ‘read’ the state of the ice in the Arctic because of global heating. And this has led to a great increase in the number of young hunters who have died on the treacherous and thinning ice floes. I wonder would Flaherty stick to the traditions he himself established if he were to make a Nanook of the North for today’s world?

Byambasuren Davaa & Luigi Falomi | Mongolia/Germany | 2003 | 87 minutes | U