Nothing within “The Story of the Weeping Camel” itself makes it apparent whether it is fact or fiction. Some elements are clearly real and would be difficult to fake convincingly — I think of the scene in which a camel gives birth and its owners act as midwives — and the opening title “Spring 2002” is far more specific than most fictional films get.
But then there are the cameras on tripods, the flow of the story that feels the way made-up stories feel, and the characters’ naturalism that give the film a fictional texture. People in documentaries usually look at the camera a lot, and the cameras are usually shaky, hand-held things. Not so here.
The filmmakers, Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni, call their work “narrative documentary” — a blend of fact and fiction, in other words. Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times explains that while following a family of nomadic shepherds in the Gobi Desert simply to document their way of life, the directors happened upon the incidents that became the film’s central storyline. Some scenes were recreated using the original participants (no actors), while others are original, candid footage. Knowing that going in, you can probably figure out which category each scene belongs to, but the movie is so simple and captivating that you probably ought to just enjoy it.
It is set in southern Mongolia, amidst a multi-generational family living in elaborate tents on the barren plains. They deal in sheep, primarily, with camels being used for transportation, cargo-carrying and their hair (useful for weaving). The family’s existence is simple and happy. We see them playing cards in the evening hours, working during the day, speaking to each other matter-of-factly but warmly.
At the moment, all eyes are on the lady camels who are about to give birth. One delivers without complication. The other struggles for two days, getting a white-furred colt only halfway out, hooves first, before humans intervene and yank the baby out of her. It is at first the World’s Ugliest Thing, but you’ll soon find yourself adoring it.
The mother, unfortunately, does not share your sentiments. For whatever reason — the family speculates it’s because of the difficult labor — the mother rejects the baby and won’t nurse it. She kicks him aside when he tries to drink, and walks off when he tries to follow her, his plaintive bleating echoing after her. It’s heartbreaking.
To get help for the problem, the family sends two of its youngest members, Dude and Ugna (yes, Dude and Ugna), into the nearest town. Here we meet the film’s secondary, less-compelling theme, dealing with traditionalism versus modernism. The town is more or less completely modernized, and little Ugna is thrilled to have a chance to watch TV and eat ice cream while running his parents’ errands. The modernization provides a stark contrast: The boys walk through town dressed in colorful, traditional robes while everyone around them wears jeans and T-shirts. (I thought of the polygamists who live in the rural areas of Utah, whose women often come to town wearing gingham dresses that reach their wrists and ankles, and who are gawked at by everyone.)
The solution to the camel situation is unique, or at least it seems that way to me. Maybe it’s commonplace in the Gobi Desert. I note, however, that the film has no musical score until the end, when it really matters. Like many animal-centric films try to be, this one is sweet and joyous and wonderful.
B+ (1 hr., 27 min.; Mongolian with subtitles; )