For a film in which music play a key role, The Story of the Weeping Camel is remarkably quiet. The lack of a soundtrack drives home the barrenness of life on the Mongolian steppe, where a well-sealed yurt is the only protection against sandstorms scouring the treeless terrain.
Into this setting venture a group of German filmakers, apparently without a tale in mind, but with a hunger to tell the story of everyday life for Gobi desert dwellers. They filmed a family's routine, but got their plot only when they witnessed the birth of a rare white camel colt and the mother's rejection of her offspring.
The family cajoles the mother camel to no avail, and eventually sends for the aid of a music teacher at a school in town. No narration tells you about the musical ritual to come, nor how far the two young boys have to trek to get to the town. You're simply left to watch, listen, and mutely learn about the pace of their life. Outside with their goats and camels, and inside with the family playing, eating, socializing. While plain on the outside, the yurts they call home are vibrantly colorful and warm inside.
The film's music is minimal - some solo singing, some group singing, the musical ritual featuring the morin khuur (Mongolian horse-head fiddle). But the music is made more potent by the quiet that surrounds it.
The non-actor actors blend into their environment, showing a natural beauty in their matter-of-fact approach to everything from hospitality to animal care. The three generations that live in the same compound even echo familiar themes: the grandfather saying how useless it is to sit around watching "glass images" (the TV), the younger brother's fascination with expensive goods in the town's store, the mother singing the baby to sleep.
In the end, though, the family is just one character, along with the camels, the desert, the ambient sounds, the weather, the light. All conspire to make this one of the most visually engaging and culturally revealing films since Atanarjuat: Fast Runner. Even though the DVD lacks any significant special features (I would have loved a "behind the scenes" look or a director's commentary), it's well worth getting.
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