Monday, February 04, 2008

The Story of the Weeping Camel

"so i was wondering if you've seen the film weeping camel and what you might have thought about it. i'm taking another filmmaking class and we're discussing it tomorrow. -lisa"

I saw "Weeping Camel" in Portland, Oregon, in 2004, as I was on my way back to Mongolia. The audience was stunned; the reaction was very positive. I know the film was popular in the politically liberal-minded markets of Europe and the coasts of the States. In Mongolia, it was a huge flop. I read one opinion (I think it was by the filmmaker) that posited that the fact that the film was a documentary turned off Mongolians, because they have ideas about documentaries, held over from Soviet times, as silly propagandizing films portraying the glory of the worker.

But I think "Camel" is just not that interesting to Mongolians. There's not much of a story to it. Many of the film's scenes are simply scenes from regular countryside life. One of the most shocking, humorous, incredible scenes for the Portland audience was when a five-year-old boy runs outside the ger and crawls up onto the back of a huge camel and then whips the camel until it stands up and then he rides away on it. But for a Mongolian, that scene has no novelty and can elicit no reaction; it's just another boring scene in which nothing really happens.

To think about it, would you want to watch a film of some average ol' Americans in Ohio or somewhere, just following them around in their ordinary routine, working and cooking and showering and whatever? Can you think of anything more boring? Anyway, "Weeping Camel" flopped in Mongolia.

I was uncertain about the people portrayed in "Camel." The film's style was of a documentary, but it seemed to me that the people were acting out predetermined roles, or perhaps they were self-conscious about having a camera on them.

I think of "Camel" as an example of a concept that I had read about in "Anthropology of Tourism" seminar: the commodification of culture--specifically, the commodification of so-called "indigenous" culture to be marketed to wealthy, liberal foreigners.

The only Mongolians I know who have seen "Camel" are ones who work in the tourism industry. Many tourists have come to Mongolia stating that their interest was piqued by that movie, so some Mongolians have viewed the movie just out of curiosity. In the main, "Weeping Camel" was ignored in Mongolia, and would be almost entirely unknown if the filmmaker had not received some international recognition through awards, which did make the papers in Ulaanbaatar.

So what do Mongolians watch? Melodramatic South Korean television serials and films. There are Mongolians making films for the Mongolian market, more of them, it seems, with each passing year. Many of these popular films seem to be set in Ulaanbaatar and are crime/gunfight/kick-'em-in-the-face flicks, which in the States might be described with the adjectives "cheesy" and "bad."

I read that the filmmaker's follow-up movie, "The Cave of the Yellow Dog," was very slightly more popular than "Weeping Camel" in Mongolia, perhaps because there was a stronger story to it. I haven't seen that film. In fact, I don't know anyone who has.


Luke Distelhorst said...


Many Mongolians have seen the "Story of the Weeping Camel", but the ORIGINAL one. The most recent one released in 2003/2004 is merely a remake from the 1950s or 60s, I can't remember the exact date.

True that the more recent one wasn't very popular here but with Tsagaan Sar almost upon us, and MNB and the other stations queuing up their movies of national pastime, you might be able to catch the original version right after Niislel Khuu, haha.


Radigan Neuhalfen said...

Oh, that is interesting. I didn't know that there was an earlier version. Thanks Luke.

This morning, I read that some of the scenes in the 2003/04 movie were scripted, and that the filmmakers were upfront about this.

Radigan Neuhalfen said...

And, just now, re-reading this post, I realize that it sounds pretty negative. In fact, I really enjoyed the movie.