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Die Geschichte vom weinenden Kamel

This lovely 2003 film was shot in the inhospitable-looking but eerily beautiful Gobi ("desert") in Mongolia. It's not a straightforward documentary, for the makers weave in a narrative into the film, and many of the scenes are clearly staged. This style of filmmaking is sometimes called "narrative documentary", and in skillful hands presents a compelling verisimilitude that artfully walks the fine line between reality and artifice. Such is the case here.

The human protagonists are an extended family of nomads who live in yurts staked out in the bleak sand, surrounded by herds of goats, sheep, and camels. Written and directed by students at the Munich film school, Byambasuren Davaa - herself the granddaughter of nomads - and Luigi Falorni, the story was inspired by Davaa's childhood memories. The family in the film - the beautiful young mother, Ogdoo; her husband, Ikchee; their parents, grandparents and three children - toil daily to care for the animals that are their livelihood. But they are worried when the final dromedary birth of the year is a difficult one - the first-time mother labours for two days to give birth, and the men finally have to step in and pull the calf out, to sickeningly wet sucking sounds and agonized moans from the adult. When the albino calf struggles to its feet, the mother rejects it, and refuses to let it feed. And so the central drama of the movie is set, as the family struggles without success to reconcile mother with calf, finally resorting to an ancient ceremony for which they require an "excellent violinist", according to the subtitles.

The movie is notable for the gorgeous cinematography of the desert, the sand, the sky, the wind, and the animals. It shows a somewhat sanitized-looking family drinking gruel and tea, playing dice with animal teeth, smoking, bathing, sleeping. The film as a whole pleases on many levels: visual, emotional, psychological, mythical. It can also irritate, as when the narrative veers to the saccharine or contrived: the young son's fascination with television when he and his brother ride into the nearest settlement to find a violinist, for example, struck me as an overwrought cliche. Though hardly a glimpse into an authentic and vanishing way of life, as the naive might think, this movie nevertheless provides a thoroughly enjoyable window into a world far removed from what most of us will ever experience. And it reveals once and for all how ugly and freakish-looking camels really are.

This movie was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary. Highly recommended.

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