One of the more curious Oscar nominations announced last week came in the Best Documentary category, which included a small Mongolian/German production called The Story of the Weeping Camel. Unlike most documentaries, Weeping Camel is narrative, telling the story of a family of Mongolian nomads in the Gobi Desert. The filmmakers use a real family of nomads rather than actors, and frame the script around the family's everyday existence.
For their "narrative documentary," directors Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni created a mix of staged and improvised scenes surrounding the actual camel birth at the center of the story. This little-seen movie, now available on DVD, is a fascinating glimpse into an otherworldly culture, and is one of the most quietly rewarding films of 2004.
Weeping Camel (rated PG for some mild thematic content) is in Mongolian with English subtitles, but contains so little dialogue that younger pre-readers could still enjoy the movie. Several elements are worth noting for parents, however, including some brief male nudity (as a young boy is given a bath), a somewhat graphic scene of a painful camel birth, and the significance of Buddhist rituals to the story.
The story is simple and slow-moving, but the focus on small details in an alien culture makes every scene captivating. The family goes through the normal routine of the camel birthing season. One camel that experiences particularly painful labor rejects her helpless colt. Attempts to force a bond between the two are unsuccessful, so a skilled musician is called in to perform a traditional ritual intended to cajole the mother into caring for her colt.
The family's way of life, its connection to the land and to its herd (almost everything the nomads wear, eat, or even entertain themselves with is a camel byproduct), is superbly, subtly observed. There's a fascinating undercurrent of culture clash as the youngest members of the family encounter elements, like television, from outside their ancient way of life.
The film straightforwardly depicts Buddhist prayers and mystical rituals. But, in so doing, the movie provides families with much to discuss.