This is a film from Mongolia and it’s very different. I heard it was based on an ancient legend and so I was expecting something more like a myth or fantasy, but instead it’s more like a documentary. We peer into the life of a nomadic family in the Gobi desert. They live in large, dome-like tents and raise sheep, goats, and camels. There are several generations here: grandparents, parents, and children. Everyone works. For a while I wondered what time period this was in because it could have been modern or from 1,000 years ago. Then I saw the baby playing with a plastic lid, banging on it with a spoon, like a drum. All the modern stuff is like that, appearing anachronistic in such an ancient lifestyle. Very cool. The film moves slowly, just showing us bits of the life of these people, and eventually we learn a camel is about to give birth. The birth takes a long time (two days) and is not easy. The birthing is amazing: it’s completely real. No Hollywood sanitization here. I don’t know how they managed to find a camel that was about to give birth to a white calf, but they did. The white calf is rejected by the mother, and we’re treated with scenes of the lonely calf baying and crying for its mother, and the mother who refuses to let it nurse or comfort her. It’s heartbreaking. Eventually the family has an idea, so they send the two young boys away. This was fascinating. The youngest boy is probably about five, the older boy maybe twelve. Yet the parents have no problem sending the two off on their own, on camels, out into the desert on what’s apparently a multi-day trip to civilization. The two ride to an outpost where there’s a modern store (the young boy is fascinated by his first experience with TV), pick up some supplies, and then head to some relatives where they make arrangements for a violinist to come to their came. The next day, after they return home, the violinist comes, a passenger on a motorcycle, the long violin strapped to his back. Eventually the violinist plays and the mother sings, the mother camel is appeased and accepts the white calf. The baby camel is saved!
It is a simple and beautiful story. But what intrigued me the most was the glimpse we get into the life of this family. That was amazing. Such a different world, yet not so different. Babies cry and need to be nursed or amused, meals need to be prepared, animals cared for, things must be cleaned. The bare fundamentals of life do not change. There were a number of surprises. The tents, from the outside, look so plain and drag, but on the inside we find the walls are covered with elaborate and colorful tappestries, just gorgeous. It felt like a palace. Same with the bowls used for eating, as they were decorated with intricate patterns like the finest china. These are certainly people with good taste! I also found it amusing that the camels were so different from the African (single hump) camels I am familiar with. These two-humped camels are completely different, huge and hairy, with strange rather monsterish faces. I didn’t like them at first, but gradually got used to them by the end of the film. (The white calf is adorable, though. And there are lots of other animals in the movie, especially lambs, which are incredibly cute.) Another interesting thing was the “violin,” which had a very long neck and only two strings. The strings were wide and thin, like a rubber band. The tones produced were low and sort of monotone, but modified by the player sliding his fingers up and down the neck. Chords did not appear to be played, but simple variations of the main tone. It made a beautiful sound and was quite similar to the camel lowing. Another cool thing was the kids playing what looked like marbles but with what I thought had to be camel teeth.
Overall I give the story a B — it was beautifully simple but not much happened, making it slow — and the culture peek an A+.