Judge Dan Mancini assures you this semi-documentary has nothing to do with former cigarette advertising icon Joe Camel.
Some fairy tales are true…some legends are real.
It's a fair question to ask how a movie in which many of the scenes were staged and all of the dialogue was scripted can be nominated for an Academy Award in the Documentary Feature category, as Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni's The Story of the Weeping Camel was this year. We're not talking about the recreation of actual events that Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) often uses, but the invention of story and dialogue for the purpose of creating drama (in the style of Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North or George Butler's Pumping Iron; at least Davaa and Falorni, unlike Butler, were up-front about their invention). Perhaps The Story of the Weeping Camel shouldn't have been considered in the documentary category, but its central and most compelling piece of drama isn't staged. It was captured by happenstance. The scripted elements exist to bolster its emotional impact. You see, the human non-actors who reproduced their own lives on camera aren't the main characters of The Story of the Weeping Camel. That honor belongs to a duo of camels, mother and calf.
The film is set in present day, depicting the lives of a family of goat and camel herders who live in the stark wasteland of the southern Mongolian Gobi Desert. It is springtime and the camels are ready to give birth. One, named Ingen Temee, has a difficult, painful labor, resulting in a weak, white calf (later named Botok), whom she promptly rejects. Worried that the baby will starve, the family does its best to unite him with his mother, but she steadfastly refuses to nurse him. When the intercessory prayers of a monk yield no result, the family sends their two young sons, Dude and Ugna, to the nearest point of civilization—a small town a day's journey by camel—to find a musician who can perform the Hoos ritual. It is their only hope of reconciling the two camels and saving Botok's life.
The Story of the Weeping Camel is half of a good movie. It's pretty to look at, and the camels' travails are surprisingly involving, but it's also slow and the scripted material feels…well, scripted. Sponsored in part by National Geographic, it's no surprise the picture is exotic. The landscape is stark and beautiful. The camera lingers on gorgeous sunsets, distant mountains, and the oddly expressive camels. The herding family spans four generations, and they look weathered and real. They live together in a hut draped with brilliantly colored and elaborately embroidered hangings, ornate rugs, and painted woodwork. They have no electricity or plumbing. We see them work very little, though life can't be easy in the Gobi Desert. Instead, they play games and tell stories. The filmmakers put incongruous words in their mouths, carefully designed to make a statement about the soul-deadening frills of 21st-century life. Numerous swipes are taken at television, for example. It's the sort of romanticizing of primitive living that comes from the mouths of the educated and thoroughly civilized, not goat herders. And it's an unfortunate, unnecessary distraction from the drama unfolding in the lives of the camels.
In presenting the story's people, the camera is overly intimate. Shots are too artfully framed and carefully lighted; they're shot from angles that aren't spur-of-the-moment. The combined effect of the poorly-written dialogue and technically slick camera work is to make the film feel more like a mediocre based-on-a-true-story picture than a documentary. It also distances us emotionally from the people, so much so that the boys' journey to find a musician is a grating distraction. One spends the length of the interlude wanting impatiently to return to the camels.
When we're with the camels the film works. The style is truly documentary. The camera lingers on them, allowing us to study the small details of their behavior—the sway of their necks, the slow rhythm with which they chew their cud, the bizarre landscapes of their faces. It sounds like the equivalent of watching paint dry, I know, but there's something endearing about the animals when you're forced to watch them up close (yet shielded from their odor). Their big, liquid eyes are gentle and sad, and their laid-back demeanor is somehow touching. The conflict between Ingen Temee and Botok plays out with some of the emotional resonance of an old school Disney animated feature. The baby's longing for his mother is reminiscent of Bambi or Dumbo, in particular. At points he stands alone among spare thatches of grass on the wasteland, mewling balefully while other calves nurse from their mothers. You'd have to be heartless not to feel for the little guy, especially since it's abundantly clear that this is a real event the filmmakers stumbled upon (Botok's difficult birth is captured on film in fairly graphic detail). The filmmakers chose to expand the drama into a feature by adding the contrived human elements as context. They'd probably have been more artistically successful had they made a documentary short whose context and editorial were provided by voice-over narration instead. The camels are the heart of the story. The staged elements undermine their drama instead of strengthening it as intended. I wonder if Ingen Temee's titular weeping in the picture's climactic scene was a genuine phenomenon serendipitously captured, or a bit of shameless anthropomorphizing on the part of the filmmakers. I know little about camels, but I'd guess the latter.
The technical presentation of New Line's DVD of The Story of the Weeping Camel is a mixed bag. The transfer offers bold and accurate colors, and is clean and free of source defects, but it is marred by excessive edge enhancement. The non-anamorphic image will annoy anyone with a 16X9 display. The original Mongolian-language track is offered in both Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo (the mislabeled packaging indicates a Stereo Surround track). Both tracks are excellent. The 5.1 track makes surprisingly good use of the rear soundstage considering this is such a quiet film. Sounds of moaning camels, bleating goats, and nighttime crickets are placed behind the viewer's head and expertly mixed to create a convincing ambient space. The movie is absent a score to editorialize on the drama.
The only supplement is a gallery of 25 production stills.
Overall, The Story of the Weeping Camel is mediocre. At its core is a compelling little animal tale, which the filmmakers' unfortunate attempts to expand upon and humanize only dilute. This court finds Ingen Temee and Botok not guilty. Everyone else involved is guilty as charged, but free to go with time served.
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