Documentaries in other languages often seem more like conventional narrative films, because the unfamiliarity of the vocal inflections and the necessity of subtitles flattens out the difference between naturalism and neo-realism. That phenomenon is more pronounced than usual in The Story Of The Weeping Camel, a documentary about Mongolian camel herders that's like a Disney "true-life adventure," but without a chirpy narrator anthropomorphizing the animals. Oddly, the lack of artificial contextand the scant signs of contemporary lifemakes Camel's drama look staged. The movie plays like Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, but with live camel birth instead of naked ice-racing as its sensual hook.
After a slow, lyrical opening section, the story begins when a newborn white camel is rejected by its mother, touching off a flurry of home remedies and Buddhist rituals designed to bring nature back into harmony. While this takes place, German directors Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni observe the quiet interactions of one camel-herding family, focusing on pointed shots of a crying toddler trying to get her family's attention, a young boy's first glimpse of television, and the contrast between the family's traditional dress and the modern garb at a nearby common market.
The family's few lines of dialogue are so integral to advancing the story that they may well have been scripted, but it's not that important whether The Story Of The Weeping Camel is more fiction than objective ethnography. If anything, the contrast between what's real and what may have been faked only adds to the tension between the natural world and encroaching modernism. Davaa and Falorni have structured the movie smartly, stranding their audience in an alien landscape early on, then gradually adding empathetic human characters, followed by motorcycles, plastic toys, and all the distractions that keep a rural clan from communing with their cattle. By the end, the filmmakers have established their world so well that the low moan of a camel and the heavy sighs of a sleeping baby possess the same elemental resonance.