Issue 53 (2016)

Iurii Feting: Celestial Camel (Nebesnyi verbliud, 2015)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2016

Set in the steppes of Kalmykia, a region in the south of Russia on the Caspian Sea, the film tells the story of a boy searching for his camel calf. A poor family of sheep herders sells the camel to a Russian film administrator to pay their debts and to get money to care for a new baby that is on the way. For the family’s three children, the baby camel Altynka is a friend; the oldest son Bayir also believes that Altynka is the white camel Tengryn Botkhn, born—according to the legend—from a magical cloud to bring rain to the dying steppe. When the parents make their way to the maternity clinic, Bayir leaves home to get back the camel-mother Mara, who has run away in search of her calf. Driving a sidecar motorcycle, Bayir meets various people along the way: a family that gives shelter to him, and whose daughter he likes; shamans and Buddhist priests praying for the rain; a drug dealer who wants Bayir to transport sacks of cannabis to the train station and gets him into trouble; police who lock Bayir up; a Russian orphan boy nicknamed “50-kopeck” (poltinnik), whom Bayir meets in the police lock-up. Escaping together, the boys share food and adventures.

The film was released in Russia in February 2015; its international premiere was at the Berlin Film Festival, where Celestial Camel was selected for the Generation program. Since then, it has garnered eleven prizes, including the Best Film for Children award at Kinoshok Film Festival (Russia) and at the Eurasia Film Festival (Kazakhstan), as well as prizes and diplomas from festivals in Latvia, India, Canada, Germany, and Bulgaria.

verbliudThis international recognition is not surprising: it is a Eurasian film, whose cast includes Kalmyks and Russians; a deeply humane film without sentimentality; a film for children about children and animals; and a film (almost) without politics. The Russian film manager (played by Viktor Sukhorukov), who buys Altynka to replace the camel killed in an accident during a film shoot, is anxious to get the animal for American filmmakers; at a crucial moment during the film he speaks on the phone, mixing English and Russian languages. But if America represents anything in the film, it is a pragmatic, money-driven modernity, which is what most adult characters in the film embody anyway.

verbliud What makes the film unique is the fusion of wonder—shaman rituals, a wooden idol in the desert, the legend of the celestial camel—and the everyday life in the steppe, which provides a harsh backdrop for these spiritual practices. Feting portrays a world that is self-sufficient, both in the traditional social way, with the family at the center, and in the connections among people, animals and landscape. This unhurried tale avoids sentimental moments in part because these beautiful camels are vital for the family’s survival: Altynka will bring the rain, while Mara helps to get water out of the deep well to provide for the sheep. Feting, who normally co-authors the scripts for his films, is interested in the ties between reality and folklore. His previous film, Bibinur (2010), for example, follows the last five days in the life of an old Tatar woman, but weaves in the spiritual meaning of her dream; in Feting’s Myths of My Childhood (Mify moego detstva, 2005), the story of a 16-year-old boy in the 1960s, invokes the legend of a pagan Goddess of Death.

verbliud In Celestial Camel, Kalmyk culture appears through the language (mixed with Russian), the life of cattle herders, religious and pagan rituals, and local legends. But the majestic landscape represents a broader regional identity. The filmmakers shot the film in the neighboring Astrakhan region, attracted by its spectacular landmarks: Russia’s largest salt lake Baskunchak and Big Bogdo Mountain. Feting says: “It s a fantastic place … something reminiscent of another planet. But one where people are all the same a part of Russia.” (Goff 2015). The sites are part of the nature reserve, and Buddhists consider the mountain a sacred site. Somewhat in the style of Bakhtier Khudoinazarov’s Luna Papa (1999) Celestial Camel blends the legendary and the real; the majestic landscapes and second-world modernity: a Soviet-era Moskvich-407 car and a Ural motorcycle, a bootleg gasoline storage, and the train station.

verbliud The style of the film is as simple as it is effective. Celestial Camel is the cinematic feature debut of Anton Zhabin as director of photography. His camera loves children and animals; the shots of the baby camel are surreally beautiful. The soundtrack mixes Kalmyk music and prayer, camel calls, and ambient sounds of nature, while Bayir’s search is punctuated by the motif of the road. Advertised as an adventure film for children, Celestial Camel has elements of the road movie and the coming-of-age story. The two teenagers, a Kalmyk and a Russian, are aged twelve and sixteen. Following his instinct, Feting chose several non-professional actors. For example, he saw Petr Novikov (“50-kopeck”) in a park in St. Petersburg. According to the director, both the boy’s demeanor off-screen and his life—he lived with his grandmother—were not far from his character’s life of an orphaned street performer. For the role of the protagonist, Bayir, the director cast a boy, Misha Gasanov, whom he met at a Kalmyk village. Several professional actors tried for the role of the boy’s father, but Feting ultimately chose Misha’s schoolteacher, Batr Manzhiev, whom he saw in the boy’s home video. Feting notes that there was a sense of closeness between a teacher and a pupil that translated into an organic relationship between the father and the son on screen. A musician, Manzhiev also wrote and performed a song in the film. (Mazurova 2015).

The film’s sense of life caught unawares is fully realized in the dialogue, not exactly sparse but not tightly scripted or over-rehearsed either. Children deliver their lines in an off-hand way, which at times produces comic effect (especially when Bayir’s five-year-old sister bickers with her brother), and at other times becomes deeply touching. Bayir’s doomed attempts to convince adults to return Altynka are particularly authentic in revealing the child’s powerlessness in the pragmatic and indifferent world. Perhaps the closest equivalent here is Bruno in Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), whose range of emotions from trust to despair serves as the ethical tuner for the narrative. Bayir’s maturation likewise happens through a series of injustices: despite his pleas, Altynka is taken away; Bayir is arrested for another person’s crime; and he is unable to protect his camels from the men hired by the Russian film manager.

verbliud In this respect, it is fitting that the miracle of rejuvenating rain pouring down on the thirsty Kalmyk land at the end of the film is preceded by another miracle: the return of Altynka. The ending is a little masterpiece of humanist cinema, a quiet affirmation of life and hope. The film comes full circle: it opens with the birth of the baby camel and closes with the birth of Bayir’s little sister. In the morning Bayir discovers Altynka in the steppe by the house. On its neck Altynka wears a necklace with a silver 50-kopeck coin—a message from Bayir’s friend and a gesture of human solidarity. The street urchin and fakir performs his best magic act behind the scenes: he frees the baby camel and sends his lucky charm to the boy who needs it. The last shot of the film is a beautifully framed tableau: Bayir’s family together, smiling and looking at the new baby; the reunited mother and son camels in the yard; the rain of life watering the earth. All is right with the world.

A non-animated feature film for children is a rare treat in contemporary Russian cinema. The film’s executive producer Suzanna Muazen hopes that the festival success of their film will facilitate financing cinema for children. Perhaps miracles happen not only in Milan.

Elena Prokhorova
College of William & Mary

Works Cited

Goff, Samuel (2015), “Up in lights: the new east arrives in the London Film Festival,” The Calvert Journal 7 October.

Mazurova, Svetlana (2015), “Nebesnyi verbliud,” Rossiiskaia gazeta 11 February.


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Celestial Camel (Russia, 2015)
Color, 90 min
Director: Iurii Feting
Scriptwriter: El’ziata Manzhieva, with Iurii Feting
Director of Photography: Anton Zhabin
Music: Mikhail Koshevarov
Art Directors: Elena Zhukova and Valerii Bokovenko
Costumes: Tamara Seferian
Cast: Mikhail Gasanov, Petr Novikov, Viktor Sukhorukov, Batr Mandzhiev, Baira Mandzhieva, Irina Khurgunova , Danzan Badrashkiev, Tseden Konaev
Producers: Irina Plisko and Mikhail Plisko
Executive Producer: Suzanna Muazen
Production: Production Center “Vse khorosho”

Iurii Feting: Celestial Camel (Nebesnyi verbliud, 2015)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2016