Small Dramas in the Desert; Talking About “The Story of the Weeping Camel”
by Claiborne Smith
“The Story of the Weeping Camel” is about a family of nomadic camel herders in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert who must marshal all their resources to ensure that a young camel doesn’t die after his mother refuses to take care of him. You’d be forgiven for thinking that a documentary about a camel in the Gobi Desert who rejects her colt would be better suited to a 3 a.m. time slot on the Discovery Channel than a nomination for Best Foreign Language Oscar. But Luigi Falorni and Byambasuren Davaa, two students at Munich’s film school, decided, long before they shot a single frame, not to make “the normal, standard reportage on the idyllic nomadic life.”
They resolved to make a documentary that seems exactly like a feature film, with the narrative structure of a fictional movie and alluring characters whose intimate decisions affect the viewer. The fact that the characters are camels seems strangely insignificant. Ingeen Temee, who had a difficult birth and refused to suckle Botok, her first child, takes all on the characteristics of a selfish, mercurial diva even though her rejection of Botok is probably due to biological, rather than emotional, reasons. Botok, whose cries across the desert for his mother are wrenching, has the power to produce a lump in the throat of the most hardened viewer.
Of course, the filmmakers add another layer of complexity by depicting the struggles the family of herders has in trying to rescue the colt. The decision that Odgoo, a young mother, makes to save the colt is conveyed with a sufficient dose of suspense, and the resolution seems all the more relieving because it is so real and necessary.
indieWIRE spoke with the filmmakers when they were in New York for March’s New Directors/New Films series; ThinkFilm opens the documentary today.
indieWIRE: How did you find this family?
Luigi Falorni: There were many preconditions: we wanted several generations of people living together and the main consideration was that they would have a lot of pregnant camels so that we would have a chance to witness a rejection. We searched for a family that would fit to our project and we spent two weeks in the Gobi desert researching, just Byambassuren and I. And we found a family and one month later we came back to shoot the whole thing for a seven-week shoot. We met the family two days before the end of the research and you could feel right away how strong the bond in the family was, and that’s what we were searching for because that’s the key to the success of this ritual and surviving in the desert.
iW: What would you have done if the camel didn’t accept the colt in the end?
Falorni: We don’t know! We would have been desperate. There would have been no way to go back to Germany and explain to the people what we did with the money they gave us.
iW: And how did you explain to the family what you were doing? Did you say, “We’re making a documentary” or “It’s a story” or…?
Byambasuren Davaa: We didn’t hide anything. We went there and the people we met had many questions that we answered. We didn’t want to use them. Actually, it was the opposite — there was cooperation.
iW: You’ve called the film a “narrative documentary.” Could you just say a bit more about what you mean?
Falorni: What we were after was a feature film-like dramatic structure. We didn’t want to just sit around and see what happened; we wanted to tell this one specific story in a fluid way, so some things were impossible to stage, like the delivery itself and the rejection and the ritual. We just hoped that it would happen and tried to make the best of it as it happened and we had no chance to repeat that and some side scenes in-between were re-enacted for the camera or talked about with the family. They were very cooperative and they understood intuitively what we were after. They were glad we weren’t going to make the normal, standard reportage on the idyllic nomadic life. We wanted to go to the essence of their culture — what are nomads all about? It all revolves around care — helping each other, being there for one another, and when the circle of life begins to break apart because of a naughty camel mother who doesn’t want her child, they do their best to close the circle. That’s what we wanted to tell and they understood that right away; they started to see themselves more and more as an example of their own culture, so they started giving us input, like what they would do in a certain circumstance that didn’t happen when the camera was rolling. It was an exchange of us trying to explain as fairly as possible what we were after and then integrating and complimenting that, making the story round.
iW: There’s a scene in “Nanook of the North” in which Nanook kills a walrus but when Robert Flaherty was shooting that scene, it took forever to actually kill the walrus and Nanook’s relatives asked him to get out his gun and shoot it. Flaherty pretended like he didn’t understand what they were saying. You also had a trying shoot, in the desert with a colt who could easily have died. Did you ever feel compelled to help out the family in any way?
Davaa: There were instances where we asked them to do a particular thing at the same time or to give us reaction shots where they would say “No,” or something else, but we never gave orders.
iW: And did they think it was strange to repeat things they had just said?
Davaa: They supported our creativity in order to make their culture clear to us. We had to be naïve.
Falorni: We acted as if we didn’t know what was going on. Of course we knew all about the ritual because of our research but we had to act as if we didn’t know so they would explain to us what was going on — not to us, of course, but to the viewer. And at some point it felt a little strange when they had already discussed whether the camel could be rejected but we weren’t there with the camera. We were exhausted sleeping somewhere, so during lunchtime we asked them during the discussion they normally have at lunchtime if they would talk about that again when we were there recording it. So we spent quite a long time filming and wondering, “When are they going to start talking about it?” And they did it wonderfully and it sounded absolutely natural.
iW: This approach of having to be naïve is sort of interesting. Was it hard to do that?
Davaa: No, no not all. We needed that. It has nothing to do with me as a person. I became a kind of broker between the family and the audience. I had to be naïve; I couldn’t approach them knowing everything about them.
Falorni: And it was liberating to allow yourself to be naïve. Growing up in the West, it was nice to let go of playing in a contorted way, of being sarcastic. That doesn’t exist there. People are so straightforward. It was relieving to be there for seven weeks and live like that. I fell in love with the culture when I was there. Of course, we didn’t relax during the shoot either.
Naïve in the sense of simple, this is a camel, life is down to what’s essential: love, care, bonding together, being accepted, having a place to belong, it’s a very essential, very simple film and I felt we could only tell this ritual in a simple way not with fancy editing or shooting but we had to get humble and try to adapt to the rhythm of the desert and feel and be naïve like a child. “Let the child be the father to the man” — I was always very passionate about Romantic poetry and Wordsworth and that’s the basis of it, “Let the child be the father to the man,” that’s what we tried to do.