Ingen numsil, The Story of the Weeping Camel
Running Time: 91 minutes
US Certificate: PG UK Certificate: U
Country: Germany, Mongolia
It is dusk in the Gobi desert of Southern Mongolia, in the spring of 2002. An old man pauses from collecting firewood to tell “the legend about the camel”, in which, after a deer makes off with a camel's antlers, the poor camel is left to gaze forever out to the horizon in vain expectation of their return. It is a fantastic fable set in the world of myth – and yet, as the elderly storyteller's own camels stare out impassively, that world does not seem so very far away. Indeed, although 'The Story of the Weeping Camel' is a documentary, presenting its material in a plain, prosaic style with no voice-over commentary and no overdubbed soundtrack, by the time the film has ended you will feel as though you have been witness to events every bit as magical and miraculous as those in the old man's story.
He is, it turns out, Janchiv, the male elder of a four-generation family of yurt-dwelling nomads who lead a hardy existence tending sheep and camels in the desert. When a new-born white camel is rejected by its mother, the family tries everything to keep the colt alive and to get the mother interested, before finally resorting to the traditional 'Hoos' ritual – requiring them to send Dude and Ugna, Janchiv's greatgrandsons, to the town of Aimak to enlist the services of a good violinist (Munkhbayar Lhagvaa).
Made for next to nothing by a pair of students from Munich Film School, 'The Story of the Weeping Camel' lulls the viewer into its own leisurely rhythm, unfolding a narrative which at first seems threadbare, but soon resonates with themes as vast and timeless as the desert which forms its backdrop. For the film is both a celebration of the values, traditions and rituals of nomadic life, and an elegy for their inevitable passing. Family cohesion, amongst both the nomads and their camels, is shown to be essential to desert survival, and yet when the young boys embark on their journey in order to restore continuity and order to their family, it becomes clear that the tempting modernity of the town, with its electricity, motor transport, televisions and video games, is a far greater threat to their way of life than the loss of any camel.
Many of the images in 'The Story of the Weeping Camel' are stunningly beautiful, like the shots of dust dancing like a dervish on a sanddune as a storm builds – and there is much gentle humour in the laconic interactions of the family; but it is near the end, when the camel bonding ritual is performed, that the film manages to capture a mystery that is beyond all ordinary experience, as moving as it is strange to behold. This is a scene of pure wonder, and just the thought that such lore is fast disappearing in the shifting sands of progress is enough to make any viewer look back longingly to the horizon and weep like a camel.
It's Got: An extraordinary family of Mongolian nomads, a profoundly affecting group ritual (where even the camel is clearly moved), a journey leading from the old world to the new (with, appropriately enough, a shortcut marked by a power line), and the revelation that the "glass images" of a television cost thirty to forty sheep.
It Needs: To be archived - the traditions which it documents are unlikely to survive for much longer.
Two humps up for this strange, bittersweet document of disappearing nomadic culture.