By Elaine Wolff
Not long into the National Geographic feature film The Story of the Weeping Camel, a mother dromedary is wandering across the screen with two hooves protruding from her hind end. She's having a difficult, breached birth, and her owners, a Mongolian family of herders, are calm but attentive. The handsome white calf is eventually born - with deflated, floppy humps - but the mother refuses to bond with it or let it nurse, setting the major drama of the storyline into motion. The two young sons of this four-generation family living in the Gobi desert in their yerts - circular, tent-like portable houses - must journey to the nearest town to find a violinist to help them perform a special ceremony to reunite the pair before the calf dies of malnutrition.
The film seamlessly blurs the line between documentary and dramatization. It is peacefully devoid of voiceover and interpretive narration; our only guide to the strange customs and culture unfolding onscreen are the sometimes hilariously present-perfect-tense translations of the family members as they discuss daily business in tension-free, non-hierarchical exchanges.
The camels themselves are fascinating. When they trot at full speed, they look like three or four animals cobbled together, their long necks bobbing like extended hanger wire. They appear to be particularly accommodating beasts of burden, kneeling for their riders who are then snuggled comfortably between the two humps. The story begins with a great-grandfather telling a tale of the double-dealing deer stealing the trusting camel's antlers, a parable that simultaneously lauds the camel's good heart and gently mocks its lack of guile and initiative.
Once the music teacher has been engaged and follows them home on his motorcycle, the great surprise is not his fiddling, which is melodic and mournful, but the young mother's singing, which emerges suddenly, perfect and effortless. They perform a haunting duet for the estranged camels, all the while gently steering them back into each other.
Camels bark (they also neigh and moan), and as the title suggests, they sometimes weep. It's a vocabulary we are left to our own devices to decipher, but like the largely impassive faces of our Mongolian hosts, the film suggests that we all retain some instinct and memory of our agrarian past that binds us. His task accomplished, the comparatively urban violinist settles in for tea and an impromptu sing-a-long with the entire family; everyone here still knows the tune. •
By Elaine Wolff