Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Jul 27, 2004 10:41 pm 
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On the proper uses of camels and men

The box office success of Bowling for Columbine has been a boon for documentary distribution, and so, perhaps, has a politicized electorate in a presidential election year. There have been all sorts of documentaries lately, many of them good. They’re often good but they weren’t so often seen in theaters as now. There have been meticulous ones, like Philibert’s To Be and To Have -- that close, moving observation of a rural French schoolteacher and his little charges. There’s been a stirring personal biography, My Architect, Benjamin Kahn’s soaring and searching study of the life of his famous father Louis Kahn. There have been classically analytical and didactic efforts like Abbot and Achbar’s devastatingly logical and thorough The Corporation, and there’ve been other political and highly topical documentaries like Control Room, Hunting the President and Hijacking Catastrophe – which make up for not being brilliant, like Jarecki’s overpraised Capturing the Friedmans, because they contain important subject matter.

We’re all aware that it’s a hortatory and highly political documentary that’s made the most news and sold the most tickets: Fahrenheit 9/11. The pudgy documentarian has lived up to his promises. His passionate agitprop has made waves. It depends how the polls are skewed: some say the movie has no effect, some say it’ll have a negative effect, and some say it’ll bring Bush down. But if one poll by Movie City News is right, a high proportion of the adult population is going to see Fahrenheit. Six percent of all voters said they'd seen it and 38 percent said they were going to. That's close to half of all voters. Moreover, 23 percent of viewers of the film identified themselves as Bush voters, according to the same MCN poll (MCN Press Release).

But choice of subject matter clearly is itself often a statement in making a documentary film. Committed, biased, influential, challenging describes some of these products, but not all. A film about migratory birds or insect life isn’t likely to do any damage to the Republicans. And in The Story of the Weeping Camel (Davaa and Falorni), we have what calls itself a “narrative documentary.” It might be more appropriate to call it ethnographic fiction, and the category is somewhat troubling, and gives rise to more questions than most of the other efforts just listed.

This is the story of how some remote tribesmen save a healthy new camel “colt” from pining away and dying when its mother rejects it because it’s white. (Not a unique color, but brown camels are the more usual ones, we gather.) It’s not crucial whether the camel is actually weeping, and no information is given to explain the significance of the discharge from the mother camel’s eye. Given when the most copious flow occurs, she must be weeping for joy. But the camels do moan, and it’s obvious the mother rejects her white colt, also clear at times the colt gives up trying to nurse or cuddle with its mother (if that's really its mother; maybe it isn't, and that's how they staged this effect).

This happens somewhere in a shepherd grazing land among Mongolians who raise flocks of camels and sheep. There is a family, but we don’t know who they are, or what all the relationships are. We don’t really know if any of this happened. We only know that the people seem “real,” because they’re so exotic.

This is either fiction presented as documentary or documentary presented as fiction; it’s not clear which. It’s shot among these people living in the windy wilds, wearing their real clothes, talking their own language, and the movie describes, albeit sketchily, their day-to-day behavior – but not their culture, since there isn’t any voiceover narration, and the events are too subtle and complex for us to guess what’s behind all the action.

The Weeping Camel has a director, a writer, and a story, all imposed as if this were De Sica’s Bicycle Thief – except that, as in a recent fictional film using authentic Tibetan mountain tribesmen, the people actually speak their own lines; the voices aren’t dubbed as they were in Italian neorealist films.

The lack of narration hardly means that the documentary film doesn’t “intrude” on the people it describes; it merely hides the extent and the nature of the intrusion. A more straightforward version of this type of film and a more powerful one, though also hard to follow for many and not without its long boring incomprehensible passages, is Zacharias Kunuk’s 2001 Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, a fanciful retelling of an Inuit legend using Inuit people recapturing the look and feel of their ancient life.

By contrast the people in The Weeping Camel, who aren’t even identified by name till the end except for two young boys, and whose milieu isn’t much explained, are on the fringes of “civilization” (perhaps like many actual Inuit people) where kids get tempting glimpses of TV’s and video games and, when not performing rituals or meeting strangers, wear sweatshirts and Nike watch caps.

There’s a happy ending, of sorts. Nothing so spectacular. After the two boys make a trip to bring back a string player and he plays while the young wife sings, the mother camel mellows and she and her newborn finally bond. And we’ve had a new twist on the line, “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.” Despite its ambiguous filmmaking techniques, The Weeping Camel is still valid to some extent as an ethnographic study, as well as charming and visually satisfying, if you can stomach the cutesifying and the tourism. The Mongolian people the movie depicts in fact do depend for their livelihood on camels and sheep. The birth of a new camel, as in ancient Arabian society, is therefore indeed a significant event. Perhaps the movie isn’t being shortsighted in focusing not on relations between the family but on a young couple’s struggles to persuade the mother camel to suckle her baby, hand feeding the baby in the meantime.

What really happened? Is this an actual, traditional procedure, or a fanciful extrapolation? From The Weeping Camel, there’s no way of knowing. It’s just entertainment, as the Saturday audience’s laughter and applause showed. There’s a touch of ethnography. There’s a ton of authentic imagery. There’s a cute little story told with real, exotic people.

Is Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 flawed because it’s so openly biased? Or is it just honest, where The Weeping Camel is not? Somehow it seems that the best documentaries not only try to tell the truth, but spell things out when there are things we need to know. The Weeping Camel charms the American audience, which wouldn’t survive long in the actual setting but finds the camels cute and the people cuter, the landscape stark and awesome (which indeed they are). But the film, which is so thin as ethnography because it’s bent on telling its little tale, also winds up telling a pretty thin tale. It's hard not to feel we've been given a dish of ice cream when we might have had a real meal.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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