While Fahrenheit 9/11 has been passing the $100 million mark this week, reinforcing the resurgence of documentary filmmaking as a popular art form, it has also been deflecting criticisms that suggest documentaries should be free of opinion. Unlike the “actualities” by early filmmakers (trains arriving in stations, people sneezing or kissing)–or even newsreels or industrial films–documentaries have long been identified precisely by their creative spins on reality, their underlying human summary; the Scottish filmmaker John Grierson defined the documentary as the “creative treatment of actualities” and first applied the term to the 1926 film, Moana, by Robert Flaherty, a filmmaker renowned for his dramatically-staged movies featuring authentic people in authentic places. (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran, and Louisiana Story are three such films available as features-loaded DVDs.)
And as audiences reconsider the role of reality in art and its relationship to drama, fiction, and analysis, it’s no surprise that Flaherty’s name should once again be invoked. It has surfaced most recently in reviews of the exemplary new film, The Story of the Weeping Camel. Set in the Gobi desert of Mongolia, the film presents a narrative about a camel and the rejection of its newborn, and how its nomadic owners, economically dependent on the camels, attempt to resolve the situation. Like Flaherty’s work, the film traverses a narrow line between dramatic staging and the observation of real life in a way that heightens the onscreen reality and reveals a unique cultural identity. And while its ethnographic qualities earned its sponsorship by National Geographic, it’s a far cry from the sort of droning narration documentaries one might associate with reruns on the Nature Channel, presenting its sights and sounds in a dramatic, visually refined, and emotionally complex manner.
The film was directed by two Munich Film School students with a number of short films to their credit, Byambasuren Davaa is Mongolian herself, and Luigi Falorni (who also lensed the film’s luminous cinematography) is Italian. After researching for some time, they settled on a family living in the desert who owned 60 camels and 300 sheep and goats. “I never told them what they had to do,” Davaa explained, “everyone has their own creativity within them. It was up to me to extract that creativity. I would never tell them what to say, for example. Everything they say comes from within and is completely authentic.” Re-enactments were largely saved for minor, connecting scenes, but the major events of the plot center around a camel’s behavior, and were therefore unscripted and filmed as they occurred.
The film’s spectacular scenery is vivid, from the vast windswept plains dotted with animal herds to the colorful tent homes of the nomads to the bustling bazaar of a nearby town. And there’s even a powerful sandstorm the filmmakers manage to record, which conveys the same sense of danger and majesty as the Siberian gale threat in Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala.
Although Grierson championed Flaherty’s accomplishments for many years, his own convictions about socially-attuned filmmaking diverged from Flaherty’s sense of noble exoticism. Grierson later critiqued Flaherty’s work as full of romantic archetypes and apolitical contexts, and to some extent the same charges could be leveled at Weeping Camel. According to the Lonely Planet guide, Mongolia was the world’s second oldest communist country (initially achieved with the help of retreating Soviet Bolsheviks) that lasted until 1996, when a democratic coalition was elected. Unfortunately poverty has been on the rise ever since. Weeping Camel doesn’t in any way comment on this situation–the closest it gets to social commentary is the way it sentimentalizes and then questions the infatuation the family’s youngest boy exhibits toward television. In other respects, the film could’ve been filmed five or even several hundred years ago.
On the other hand, the film’s ability to convey a place and way of life so completely divorced from modern technology and globalism (although the grandfather collects batteries for his transistor radio), its provocative juxtaposition of the camel and its offspring as it relates to the nomadic family and its new baby, and its surprisingly touching and suspenseful narrative earn it high marks regardless of its essential idealization. Its fluid embrace of documentary and fictional tactics provide surprising meditations on the interrelationship between the human and animal kingdoms.