Robert Flaherty’s widow once referred to his work as a cinema of ‘non-preconception’; this début feature belongs firmly to the ethnographic documentary mode that Flaherty helped establish with such films as ‘Nanook of the North’, but it’s ‘pre-conceived’ insofar as it was scripted – indeed, it could fairly be called a remake. When the Munich Film School students set out with 16mm cameras for the nomadic communities of the sandstorm-swept Gobi Desert, they were spurred by an educational movie that Davaa saw as a kid growing up in Ulaanbaatar, about an ancient musical ritual used by herders to heal the rift when a mother camel rejects her newborn. The shape of their non-fiction film – an arc of estrangement and reconciliation – had thus been decided long before they settled in with four generations of a nomadic family and their hundreds of sheep, goats and camels; doc purists may take further issue that the directors sometimes asked their human subjects to reiterate conversations for the audience’s benefit.
Taken on its own terms, though, ‘Weeping Camel’ is an enthralling delight: by turns highly suspenseful, Buddhist-serene, and plainly staggered by the pitiless, musical winds of the endless desert. The film is blessed with exquisite compositions, elegant montage, high resistance to sentimentality, and attentive patience for the hard, concretely rewarding work of the herding life. If this were a Disney product, the stuffed-animal tie-ins would be flooding McDonald’s, but when the film-makers rhyme the wailing of a human baby with the cries of her camel counterpart, they don’t anthropomorphise the animal but, rather, simply dramatise the elemental need for food and love – a seemingly straightforward prospect that’s no mean feat.