3 Stars – Wholesome
It is difficult for our fast-paced western minds to slow down and appreciate the quiet lives of a Mongolian camel-herding family. Without the driving force of clocks or media, of motorized vehicles or cities, the Ikhbayar family moves in the quiet tones of an agrarian lifestyle only slightly brushed by the modern world. In touch with both their animals and their four generational family, the words are few and the feelings are deep.
Directed by Mongolian documentary film-maker Byambasuren Davaa, the central theme of the film is the importance of relationships, both between family members as well as between humans and animals. Living together in a compound of three Mongolian homes, respect for elders is woven into the family’s need for their wisdom in order to address the difficulties of life.
Passing on the myths of their culture, the grandfather tells the story to his children of the reason for the far-off gaze of the camel. Explaining that the camel had long ago loaned his antlers to a “rogue deer” who promised to return them, the grandfather concludes that the camel continually peruses the horizon watching for the deer’s return. This explanation of the camel’s behavior seems primitive yet, as the documentary continues, we begin to realize there is a depth to their understanding of the inner lives of their camels that provides solutions we would not have imagined.
Taking a snapshot of their experiences during the spring calving of their camels, the film takes its title from the rejection of an albino calf by his first-time mother because of the difficulty of his delivery. Taking two days to birth her calf, the mother will not accept his nursing. After many patient attempts to connect them, it becomes clear that additional help is needed. It is then that Great Grandfather and Grandfather decide a “Hoose Ritual” is needed. But they have no violinist.
At first, this also seems to be a primitive belief. How can a violinist affect a camel who is rejecting her son? Surely this is just another myth of their culture, like the food they offer God at the pole wrapped in blue cloth surrounded with rocks. But such an assumption misunderstands the traditional wisdom of their lives.
Sending two of the youngest family members by themselves on two camels to the town a day’s ride away, they ask a music teacher to come and perform the ritual. When he comes the next day on his motorcycle, the ritual is performed in a moving way.
Choosing a small, protected depression in the sand, the entire extended family gathers to participate. As the young mother begins to sing, the two-string instrument is played, and the beautifully haunting melody moves deep within the camel and her calf until the camel begins to cry. Big tears drop from her eyes as the pain of her childbirth is released and she allows her son to nurse. Separated by their pain, the music heals and unites them in ways that are not dissimilar to the tears of a person sitting in a church sanctuary again after a long estrangement from God. It is a sacred moment of healing as the humans care for their animals as they would care for a friend.
It is difficult to imagine all that has been lost as we have moved from the quiet depth of agrarian life, but it is clear that the relationships between family members and between humans and their animals has been injured by the change to modern life. It is a lesson the “weeping camel” helps us remember.
- The description of God as being the shepherd of our souls in the 23rd Psalm takes on a deeper meaning as we watch the care provided to the camels in this film. How have you experienced the care of God over your soul?
- The desire of young Ugna (Uuganbaatar Ikhbayar) to have a television comes from having seen one on his trip to the town to get the musician. Although his grandfather says that if he gets one, all he will do is sit and look at the glass, the final scene shows him and his brother adjusting a satellite dish for their new TV. How do you believe this will change the 4th generation and their future as a clan? How do you think they paid for it: with sheep, camels or proceeds from starring in their own documentary?
- Our evaluation of what is “primitive” and what is “amazing” is often due to our prejudice rather than our education. What do you think about the story of the antlers now that you’ve seen the story of the weeping camel?
- Their worship service around the pole is focused on the damage modern life has done to the planet. Do you believe that is a normal worship service for them, or this was staged? How much of the film do you believe was staged?