The Story of the Weeping Camel From the Periphery

in 47th San Francisco International Film Festival

by Bence Nánay

The most memorable and the most artistically valuable films of the last couple of years are not from countries that are considered to be the traditional centers of cinema. They are not from Italy or France. Not even from England, Germany or the USA. They tend to come from relatively peripheral places such as Iran, Argentina, Bosnia, Taiwan, Georgia, Turkey or Korea.

The film that won the first FIPRESCI prize at the San Francisco Film Festival is a Mongolian one – you can hardly get more peripheral than that. Mongolian cinema has not been in the focus of the attention of the international film critic community and most of the films that one may remember as Mongolian ones (with the possible exception of the films of Dejidiin Jigjid) were actually not Mongolian productions. Nikita Mikhalkov’s 1991 film, Urga (also known as Close to Eden), the film that probably put Mongolia on the map of world cinema, for example, was shot in the Mongolian deserts, but it is not a Mongolian film.

The topic of The Story of the Weeping Camel is not exactly trendy either: it’s about two camels. Two camels and the people whose life is intertwined with the lives of these animals – their keepers who live in the middle of the Gobi desert. The way the filmmakers, graduates of the Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen München, filmed the lives of these Mongolian nomads defies categorization. It is neither documentary nor fiction: it’s none – or both.

This way of filmmaking is very similar to the films of the recently deceased great French filmmaker, Jean Rouch. As in Rouch’s films (The Human Pyramid or I, a Negro, for example), in The Story of the Weeping Camel the question does not even arise whether the story is fictional or not. The people (and animals) we see on film behave in a similar way as they probably would behave were the camera not there and the drama of the two camels that unfolds in the film would have happened even if the filmmakers had never been there. Does this make the film a documentary? The Story of the Weeping Camel, as Rouch’s films, raises deep questions about the possibilities of drawing the line between documentaries and fiction films. On the negative side, as Rouch’s films, The Story of the Weeping Camel also comes quite close to exoticism at times. Much of the attention of the camera is directed at how different the life of these Mongolian people is and how exotic it is to live in a yurt without electricity and running water.

The film is really about the two camels: mother and son. The mother abandons her little one and chases him away each time he approaches her. A real drama with real personalities. It is very rare that a film manages to make an animal its main character. The only example that springs to mind is Robert Bresson’s Au hazard Balthasar from 1966. In Bresson’s film, the donkey played a more important (and more emotionally engaging) role than any of the human characters. I do not know of any film that managed to achieve the same effect ever since. The Story of the Weeping Camel came very very close.