In the Gobi desert, a camel has rejected her newborn calf after a prolonged delivery. But the nomadic shepherd family that owns mother and baby is able to successfully reunite them by, of all things, playing ancient music that literally drives the adult camel to tears. To the cynical it may seem far-fetched, and to animal lovers it will come as an almost religious moment. Most people will probably just cry along with the camel in between handfuls of popcorn. But what's more important is that The Story of the Weeping Camel consists of more than just this lone extraordinary moment.
Written and directed by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni, a Mongolian and Italian who met at a German film school, the film mixes documentary footage with dramatic re-creation. That may seem a bit unconventional, but as films like Touching the Void have shown, documentary filmmaking can be merged with staged storytelling to powerful effect. Here the action onscreen is largely staged but done so in order to re-enact actual events. The line between documentary and drama is further blurred by non-actors essentially playing themselves.
Davaa and Falorni follow a four-generation family of Mongolian shepherds making their way through the desert as their people have for thousands of years. The family lives in simple yurts that can be carried on a camel's back but are sturdy enough to provide shelter from the Gobi's high winds and wide-ranging temperatures. When one of the family's camels gives a much-labored birth to a rare white calf only to refuse it nursing, the calf's mournful cry can be felt to the bone. But it's not just sad--it's dangerous, jeopardizing the family's ability to carry on with the help of their animals.
In keeping with ancient tradition, the family decides to seek out a traditional Mongolian musician whose playing can coax the mother camel into accepting her offspring (you think AC/DC is gonna do the trick?). So in one of the film's most memorable sequences, the two sons make a multiday journey to the nearest town to find melodic aid. When they arrive, the boys get a rare glimpse of television and other temptations from the outside world. They are understandably captivated, but even to these children the TV is understood as a momentary distraction and not something worth sacrificing for. That's a subtle but key point in The Story of the Weeping Camel: that the primitive life these shepherds lead is not simply one of tradition but--difficult and austere as it may be--ultimately one they've chosen.
When the big weepy climax comes (how Hollywood!), it is extraordinary not just because we're witnessing the all but unheard-of sight of an animal shedding tears, but because we have come to understand the ripple effect one calf nursing from its mother will have for four generations of a family. That Davaa and Falorni have captured and staged such a rare moment from an isolated society and made it feel completely, unequivocally genuine is not just a parlor trick but an instance of filmmaking at its most basic: a means of passing on enduring truths and spellbinding tales from the farthest corners of the world.
Not RatedCinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 7 and 9 pm Friday-Thursday, July 16-22. Additional shows 1, 3 and 5 pm Saturday and Sunday. $4-$7.