a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
As I write this, the news media are reporting about the latest amazing pictures from Saturn. People are eating this stuff up, ravenous for some new and exciting experience, the sense of the unfamiliar, of going somewhere we haven’t been before.
At the same time, in theaters, a quiet little movie is offering views that are equally awe-inspiring, unfamiliar, and compelling. But this isn’t a gallery of blurry photographs. It’s breathtaking cinematography of a place populated by fascinating strangers, people who take care of creatures you won’t find in your own neighborhood, living in a landscape as spectacular and foreign to the folks of my town as the rings of Saturn.
We love to experience new worlds, especially when they’re out of our reach, or when they’re fictional, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The Gobi desert’s a fair distance away… so why aren’t people lining up around the block to see The Story of the Weeping Camel? It’s an awe-inspiring vacation that sends us back to our homes with a better sense of the world’s mysteries and magnificence. These environments are as interesting as Bilbo’s Shire, but they’re real. In a sense, they’re right across the lake.
The film, directed by filmmakers Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni, is not a fiction. It plays out in front of the cameras exactly as it has time and time again in the dusty deserts of southern Mongolia. A family living in a close-knit series of beautifully decorated tents—“yurts”—endure blasting sandstorms and searing heat, raising sheep, goats, and camels. Here’s the drama: A baby camel is born, and the mother rejects it. Sounds unimpressive, but the way they capture it reveals a suspenseful, heartbreaking, unpredictable, and often very funny narrative. And some of the characters are unforgettable. It’ll be hard for most American viewers to believe that this kind of life continues today. It’ll also be painfully clear that such a fascinating way of life may not last much longer.
The camels, of course, steal the show. They’re strangely beautiful with their thick golden manes and huge dark eyes; they’re often amusing and sometimes piercingly eloquent. They remind us just how short CGI falls in creating convincing, lifelike creatures. The subtleties of their expressions indicate a deep and complicated intelligence.
I had heard about the fascinating footage of these magnificent creatures, and that’s why I hurried to the sneak preview of the film. What I hadn’t heard about was how much I would come to care for the family raising the camels.
There’s something deeply therapeutic about spending time with this multi-generational clan. There is no comedy healthier than the inquisitive, unselfconscious behavior of small children. Watching the parents work with the animals reveals just how well they know their job; this is their life, and they seem to enjoy it. So, it seems, do the animals, who show an impressive trust in their presence. The sight of the grandparents, dressed ornately, playing a card game in an exquisitely decorated tent, is one of the most beautiful pictures I’ve seen onscreen this year. The delight that a young boy shows when he is given permission to go on his first long-distance camel voyage without adult supervision… it’s as contagious as that shown by any kid at Christmas who gets his first bicycle, or any teenager earning a driver’s license.
At first, their life seems simple. Then, as we’re introduced to hardships that come at them from within and without, we come to see that their existence is fragile and endangered. Storms lurk like phantoms, made of sand and wind; but the family responds skillfully, and we’re left wondering what we would have done in such a situation.
One of the most troubling threats to their lives comes in a form we take for granted—television. When the family’s two young sons run an errand to purchase batteries for their father, they stop to visit with neighbors at a nearby settlement. The neighbors have a TV, and young Ugna’s world changes in an instant. His little mouth hangs open in awe as cartoon characters run across the screen. Later, when the boys reach the market, there’s a a scene that reminded me of Nikita Mikhalkov’s Close to Eden, in which a Mongolian man sheepishly shopped for condoms at his wife’s request. The young boy isn’t looking for anything as embarrassing as that; he’s drawn to the array of televisions. His interest is so intense, we we can’t shake the notion that, in some way, he has been poisoned.
While it’s amusing, it’s also a real threat — if he were to bring one of these home, how would it affect his priorities? What would it do to his attentiveness to the animals and the natural rhythms of family life? “You don’t want that,” his grandfather warns him. “You’d spend the whole day watching the glass images.” Still, you can’t help but sympathize with the child’s wide-eyed wonder as he replies, “But… it’s wonderful!”
The film culminates in a way I must take care not to spoil. Suffice it to say that the family is forced to take drastic measures out of concern for the poor, abandoned baby camel. Their solution is nothing short of miraculous. It expands our sense of mystery. It might even give viewers a new sense of humility as it impresses upon us just how much remains to be discovered about God’s creation. The music that accompanies that climactic scene has a powerful affect on the proceedings, but also on the audience.
It is difficult to avoid extrapolating larger implications from the film’s conclusion — the events lend themselves as metaphors for love and healing. In The Story of the Weeping Camel, there’s a great metaphor for our need to reconnect with God, and how focusing on something beautiful can bring us back into communion with the Source. A right relationship with the Source sets everything right. The parallel only goes so far—in the film, it’s the Source that has a damaged perspective. In my life, the Source never lets me down; the problem is me.
I’m reminded of the way that every Sunday morning, no matter how badly I want to sleep late or watch television or go out to a coffee shop with a book, I know that I’ll regret it if I don’t go to church instead. The music I hear at my church is so sincerely played, so beautifully composed, so inspiring, that I am always grateful that I showed up. It’s always the right choice, because it reorients my heart to its proper priorities and restores to me a healthier perspective. When we focus on that which is harmonious, that which is holy, that which is beautiful, things come into focus. Our agitated, distracted, self-interested spirits are calmed.
By the end of the film, we understand its title completely. But we also are aware that it’s not just a camel that is weeping. The whole world is wounded and in need of healing. Everything within it desires to be visited by grace, by that “music of the spheres” that will realign our planet’s orbit, restore our hearts to the proper rhythm, and resurrect humanity to its intended role and condition.
Unfortunately, there are tribulations yet to come. The film closes on a melancholy note, with a hint of foreboding. (It is here, in its dark prophecy, that the film most strongly echoes Close to Eden.) You can sense it when, after this small victory, the camels stare into the distance, their voices echoing the songs they’ve heard. The sadness and beauty of the scene remind us that this fragile balance, restored briefly through human endeavor, may just as easily be upset again by human ambition and impropriety.
Perhaps when we start paying more attention to the fantastic world in which we live, instead of merely escaping into those fantasy worlds we manufacture, we can help turn back the tide that threatens to break down such wonders of nature. The difference between looking at photos of Saturn and looking at The Story of the Weeping Camel is that one world depends on us to take care of it and the other doesn’t. Perhaps we prefer the far-off or fictional worlds because they don’t ask anything of us. If so, that’s too bad. Soon, they’re all we’ll have left.