A universal truth, as told by a camel and its herders | AspenTimes.com
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A universal truth, as told by a camel and its herders

Stewart Oksenhorn

“The Story of the Weeping Camel” is further evidence that the most universal subjects are often best handled with an emphasis on simplicity. The Mongolian film – made with nonprofessional actors, minimal dialogue and the slightest of plots – manages to address a handful of fundamental subjects in a moving and natural (if not thoroughly entertaining) way.The film’s most obvious observation is on the most basic topic that exists on this planet, the bond between a mother and child. In this case, the species isn’t human but of the camel variety, and the mother-infant relationship has not developed in the way it should: The mother camel, suffering after a difficult delivery, has failed to bond with her offspring.What could be sadder and more universal than a helpless child – and it hardly matters that this is a four-legged one – longing for its mother’s affection? Anyone not moved by the sequences of the knock-kneed baby being kicked away by its mother has a heart of stone. The writer-directors Luigi Falorni and Byambasuren Davaa milk the strained relationship for all it’s worth without dropping into shamelessness. The frequent, lingering close-ups of the poor baby being kicked away from its mother’s teat need no words to convey the sense of estrangement. It’s a fairly powerful message, though not a particularly sophisticated one; a child could relate to this part of the film as easily as an adult.

Somewhat more subtle, and worth more reflection, is the effect this unfolding saga has on the family of herders who share the stage with the camels. In their home in the Gobi desert there are few distractions. The land is practically empty of distinguishing features for miles; the closest village can be a day’s journey away. There is no electricity.Therefore, the plight of the newborn camel receives the full attention of four generations of camel herders. For days, everyone from the elderly to their knee-high great-grandchildren – all of whom live in a cluster of three yurts – focuses their lives on getting the mother to give proper care to her baby. Repeatedly they place the infant under the mother, hoping that the proximity will spark the maternal instinct to nurse her young. Still, the mama rejects her baby.”The Story of the Weeping Camel” handles this part of the film – call it “The Story of the Unified Family” – with a natural ease. There are no rallying cries, no moments of crisis that cause the family members to overcome differences for their common cause. It is a part of the simple bargain they make in their lives: The camels give them milk, wool and a means of transportation; they take care of the camels. On a less tangible level, the camels also provide the family a place to gather and unite.

It is hard not to make the comparison to life in the civilized Western world. In our complicated lives, practically defined by how many distractions we have invented for ourselves, we lose sight of these simple obligations, the obligatory give-and-take of life. Consequently, when the going gets tough we can easily turn our attention in one of a thousand or so directions.Despite the efforts of the herders, the mother won’t care for her baby. Two younger family members are thus sent to the nearest village for the heavy artillery: a musician who plays a two-stringed bowed instrument, akin to the cello. (On their trip, the younger of the boys is fascinated with the televisions and computers he sees in the village market.) The musician plays the ritual music that has always been used to soothe and heal the camels. Instantly, and to no one’s surprise, the baby camel is gulping down its mother’s milk, proving the power of music and the power of ancient traditions.”The Story of the Weeping Camel” is not long on entertainment value. But given the door it provides into an exotic culture, and the deft way it touches on universal matters, that might be excused.

“The Story of the Weeping Camel” shows Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 9-10, at Paepcke Auditorium as part of the SummerFilms series.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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