In 'Survivor', the grand daddy of Reality TV, people are thrust into “hostile” environments to compete for prizes. Of course they’re never in any real danger as there are doctors, animal wranglers and camera crews on hand to ensure nothing goes wrong. If any of these contestants had to actually fend for themselves in a harsh foreign environment, the only ratings they’d be likely to generate would be curious tourists taking pictures of their bleached bones.
Life is a fragile commodity at the best of times, something that Mongolia’s nomadic herders know well: the Gobi Desert, which they call home, is one of the most hostile environments on earth and eking out an existence is an ongoing struggle. When a mother camel abandons her rare white newborn after a difficult birth, the herders are concerned with the calf’s welfare. The herders make repeated efforts to reunite the pair, but much to their dismay, they are unable to. Faced with the potential death of the newborn they rely on a traditional ceremony in the hope that music will bring the two together and restore the harmony in their lives.
Part documentary, part feature (the “actors” were real herders who were provided with minimal scripted dialogue), this is a multi-layered film that is entertaining, and educational and is difficult to categorize. While there is the easy to grasp story of a mother and child, we are also provided with a glimpse into a largely unknown culture. On another level it is a subtle polemic about the effects of encroaching technology on isolated cultures, which makes one wonder if this way of life will continue to survive. One thing it is not is a story that moves quickly.
The film’s relaxed pace is not for everyone – if you’re looking for CGI, explosions and chases, see what else is playing at the goolgleplex. The director purposefully lingers on the surroundings so that the viewer has the opportunity to appreciate the inherent beauty – and inherent dangers - of the vast, arid environment. The largely monochromatic landscape stands in stark contrast to the surprising richness of color that surrounds the stalwart herders.
When the camera shifts from the exterior shots to the interior of the tents, it feels as though you’ve stepped into another world. – the homes are beautifully outfitted with grand carpets and luxuriant silk wall hangings. This extends to the clothing as well: while their work clothes are functionally drab, their inside wear is a fine balance of elegance and simplicity.
Beautifully shot, with a poignant story, 'The Story of the Weeping Camel' is one of those rare films that stands alone, and refuses to be labeled. Regardless whether you are an animal lover or not, you will be hard pressed to resist the desperation of the little camel that could and its plaintive cries. Indeed many people at the screening apparently got sand in their eyes…