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Weeping Camel: A Real Mongolian Tear-Jerker

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 19, 2004
 
Among the nomads of Mongolia's Gobi desert, camels provide life's
necessities. Camel hair is woven into clothing. Dried camel droppings
fuel fires. Camel milk serves as a dietary staple. Shoes and saddles are
fashioned from camel hides.

Wealth is measured in part by the number of camels a person owns. So when a camel mother rejects a newborn colt, the nomads take the rejection very seriously.

In keeping with an ancient ritual, a musician must be summoned to perform a ceremony. The rite aims to coax the camel mother into nursing her baby. If the mother accepts the baby, legend has it that the ritual causes her to weep with joy.



The ritual is at the heart of The Story of the Weeping Camel, a docudrama about a family of Mongolian herders who face a crisis when a camel rejects her newborn.

Now in release, the film has been an audience favorite at film festivals. It is the first film to be distributed under the new National Geographic World Films label.

"It's the story of salvation, of the loss of love and the struggle to win it back," said Luigi Falorni, the film's Italian co-director. "I believe each one of us has gone through the same as the little starving camel at some point in life: feeling estranged, unceasingly searching for protection and needing to belong. [The baby camel's] fate is evidence that no life is possible without love."

White Camel

The idea for the film came to Falorni when he was a student at the Munich Film School in Germany and was searching for a subject for his graduation film. At the time, a fellow student, Byamabasuren Davaa, told Falorni about an educational documentary on a music ritual involving camels, which she had seen as a child in Mongolia.

"The simplicity and beauty of that ritual struck me right away," Falorni said. He quickly decided to travel to Mongolia with Davaa to shoot a documentary about the ritual.

Camel birthing in Gobi only takes place in March each year.

During a research trip, the filmmakers found the ideal subjects for their film: a herder family of four generations living in the same ger, the colorful tent that nomads use. The family owned 60 camels, 20 of them pregnant.

But when Falorni and Davaa returned to Mongolia to produce their documentary, the pair got stuck in a wild snowstorm in Ulaan Baatar, the capital. When they finally arrived at the nomads' ger, most of the family's camels had already been delivered.

The story seemed to have collapsed—until the very last birth. The baby turned out to be white, not brown, a one in ten chance. When the colt's mother rejected it, the filmmakers knew they had their story.

Weeping With Joy

As the mother kept walking away from the colt, the baby wouldn't stop crying, even if someone tried to feed it a bottle. The camel wouldn't develop without its mother's milk, and eventually it would probably die from starvation.

A violinist was summoned from the nearest settlement. Then the family began to sing near the mother and baby, while the violinist played. There are no lyrics to the traditional song, just a repetition of the letters H-O-O-S. The word does not have a meaning, but is meant to have a soothing effect.

The most significant moment during the ritual is when the mother camel signals her acceptance of her baby by weeping real tears. Falorni says that moment captures the message of the film.

"The nomads' message to the Westerner through this film is: Never give up on life, no matter if it's a little camel, a child, or a friend," he said. "Solidarity and care for one another not only make life possible in the desert, but [also] make life much richer."

The film is known as a "narrative documentary," combining unstaged sequences with recreations. Falorni and Davaa actually developed a fairly detailed script, then integrated whatever unexpected incidents occurred into the storyline.

"Our protagonists are real nomads from Gobi who 'played' before the camera the same roles they have in real life," he said.

One challenge the filmmakers faced, Falorni noted, was how to explain to audience members that a brown camel can give birth to a fair-skinned, white one. "As it turned out, its different color was beneficial to the film," Falorni said. "It makes the little baby stand out in the camel herd even more, like a real outsider."

Land of the Blue Sky

Sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia is on a plateau with an average elevation of 5,180 feet (1,580 meters). Natural beauty abounds; the country is called the "Land of the Blue Sky," because it enjoys over 250 sunny days a year.

Yet that moniker belies an extreme climate in which temperatures range from 90 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) in the summer to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 45 degrees Celsius) in winter. Devastating storms sometimes kill animals by the tens of thousands.

"The desert is a wonderful place for a vacation, but it can get quite frustrating if you're there shooting a film," Falorni said. The filmmaker encountered winds blowing at up to 150 kilometers an hour (90 miles an hour). "We often had to stop shooting because the wind was making sound recording impossible. We were able to work only 23 of the 35 days planned for shooting."

The filmmakers immersed themselves in the world of the nomads. In most of Mongolia, rainfall is scarce and unreliable, making agriculture difficult. Thus the nomads still travel, as they have for centuries, in search of pastures to sustain their animals.

Mongolia's population density is a sparse four people per square mile (2.6 square kilometers).

But the number of rural residents is decreasing. Urban areas, like Ulaan Baatar, have seen booming growth in recent years. Today, Mongolia's younger generation faces the choice of upholding the old traditions of herding and living in the desert or migrating to the nation's cities.

Falorni says Mongolia's nomadic lifestyle has unique qualities.

"They are a remarkably self-sufficient people, producing all they need for life by themselves," he said. "They don't think about money. They cherish nature, because they depend on it. And they have a very strong connection to their animals. They understand that we, as humans, have to adjust and not the other way around. That is the philosophy of the nomads."

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