Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Story of the Weeping Camel

(Die Geschichte vom weinenden Kamel, or Ingen numsil, Mongolia, Germany, 2003)

A completely charming and hard to classify movie. Some call it a “narrative documentary,” of the type Robert Flaherty pioneered in Nanook of the North and Man of Aran. That is, the director films real people in their real milieu, scripts what he can, but basically is showing their way of life. There is barely any plot. An extended family of nomadic herders in yurts live on land about as forbidding as any that humans occupy anywhere on the globe. The last pregnant camel (of the Bactrian two-humped variety) of the season has a very difficult birth, which we see in painful and fascinating detail. It is a rare white camel, and the mother rejects it. Big problem; they need every camel they can get. So they send two of their sons into the village a day’s ride away for a master player of a Mongolian sort-of cello (called a morin-khuur) to perform a rite that might stir the mother’s affections. I won’t tell you the outcome.

The fascination is the simplicity, and the slow way in which the modern world is revealed. At first you can almost believe this is supposed to be 400 years ago, 1000 years ago … the way of life hasn’t changed much. But you see they are wearing modern fabrics, they have eyeglasses. The insides of the yurts are amazing: bright and clean, with wood floors and lovely furniture. Then you see cars in the far distance. The boys going into town eventually come to power lines, then the village … which looks like a total anachronism, it has no place out here.

I’d die if I had to live there, but it’s no rathole. They have bright, shiny televisions and computers for sale, and ice cream. It reminded me of the old song “Louisiana Man,” where the boy goes to town with his father to see the “cowboy show” at the movies. The boys in town ride bikes and motorcycles. The young boy can’t take his eyes off the hypnotic glass of the television, nor can anyone else, and it makes you sad.

Of course, where do I get off mourning a way of life that is obviously passing? A way of life that would kill me or drive me crazy in days? The director takes no position on this, but adds a final scene that got a great and rueful laugh from us. See this! It’s short, and you’ll remember it.