Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Byambasuen Davaa and Luigi Falorni | Die Geschicte vom weinenden Kamel (The Story of the Weeping Camel)

a culture and its image
by Douglas Messerli

Byambasuen Davaa and Luigi Falorni (writers and directors) Die Geschichte vom weinenden Kamel (The Story of the Weeping Camel) / 2003

One cannot imagine a motion picture that more clearly represents the interconnecting “thematic” of the 2003 volume of My Year—“Voice without a Voice”—than Byambasuren Davaa’s and Luigi Falorni’s documentary drama, Die Geschichte vom weinenden Kamel (The Story of the Weeping Camel). This picture about a nomadic Mongolian family of goat herders was filmed entirely in the language of that country—unknown to very few Westerners—without translation. Moreover, the film, in the tradition of early filmmaker Robert Flaherty, goes out of its way to hide evidence of its being a work of art, presenting its simple characters without any obvious intrusion in their lives, instead letting their own actions (or recreations of those actions) and those of their animals speak for themselves. Finally, at the center of this touching story are not even human characters, but a camel and its bleating calf.

      Despite these seeming hurdles of language and species, the sympathetic viewer feels not only that he can comprehend the feelings of this extended family living in tents at the edge of the Gobi desert, but that he understands— without any of the obvious anthropomorphism or Disneyfication of these animals—the events surrounding the young camel’s birth and later distress.

      In order to accomplish this feat of transformative experience, the filmmakers center their lens on simple actions of the characters—cooking, washing, eating, feeding the goats, cleaning their tent-like huts, and simple pleasures such as storytelling, singing, and playing cards. We have little evidence that this extended family argues or squabbles with each other, since the film focuses—as have most other such cultural studies—on their daily survival.

      In some respects, accordingly, this simple goat herding life seems almost paradisiacal, if a bit boring. That is, until after one of their camels bears a new calf, and a second camel begins suffering, clearly having a hard time in labor. Ultimately, the family is forced to intrude, helping to pull the  white colt from its reddish-brown mother’s womb. Whether because of that human intervention, the pain of the childbirth, or just the difference in color, the mother rejects her baby; Janchiv and Chimed time and again bring the colt back to feed from its mother’s teats, only to have the mother kick him away. It is a painful situation, as even the young Ugna wonders whether the colt can survive, particularly when it the new born begins to pitifully bleat out of fear, loneliness, and simple hunger, afraid to even near its unfriendly mother. Chimed feeds the colt milk, but as the small camel finds it difficult to suck from the container which holds the vital liquid, much of its spills. Only after tying the mother camel’s legs and forcing the child to her teats, does the babe get properly fed; the moment they loose the mother, she again kicks her child away from her company.

      After some discussion of what to do, the two youngest boys are sent out on a voyage—a trip of at least two days away—to a provincial town, where they momentarily enjoy a few Western pleasures—Ugna discovers television cartoons and ice cream, while his elder brother purchases much needed batteries—before they look up the local musician who can perform, evidently, the magic ceremony that will save the colt.

       The children return to their outpost, soon after followed the Munkhbayar, the violin teacher on motorcycle. Family members gather as he momentarily attaches the instrument to one of the camel’s humps before taking it up and ritually performing, Chimed accompanying with a beautifully mournful tune while she strokes of the camel’s body. Gradually—and absolutely magically—the camel is calmed down, and what appear to be tears well up in its eyes, eventually pouring down its face and on to the floor of the red desert. As the tune closes, the colt is encouraged to return to the teat, where, even more startlingly, the mother permits it to nurse!

     Western audiences cannot be certain of what they have just witnessed: a magical ritual of a musically accompanied reunion of mother and child?  An inevitable acceptance of a child by its mother accidently captured upon film? A trick of cinematography? We would like, of course, to believe in the first alternative. But we also know that, despite the seemingly unobtrusiveness of the National Geographical supported cameras, that this Mongolian family has had to deal with their presence for several days.

     A final “curtain call”-like naming of the characters followed by their bows does not help, as it introduces—for the first and only time—the fact that this was not “real” life but a play, a scripted act of filmmaking. Accordingly, even if what it represents—and it does so with startling visual beauty—is the “truth,” we can only wonder what that “truth” means. One can only ponder what happened the moment Davaa’s and Falorni’s camera disappeared. Did this beautiful family break out in laughter for their own (in)credible performances? Did they begin fighting tooth and nail about how things should have been done? Did old Amgaa complain of his wife’s awful cooking—evidently goat milk warmed with some herb or spice? Did the two boys continue to complain to their parents about the lack of a television upon which they had watched that Soviet cartoon in “the city?” Did the mother camel kick her colt away one last time?

      What one ultimately recognizes is that despite the camera’s ability to make experience seem just like real life—despite the seeming naturalness captured by this camera—the very fact that a camera has been used has transformed these events into something other than actual experience, has taken them from the real into a world of imitation, has brought the family, their animals and the events into the world of art.

Los Angeles, June 14, 2007

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