In my new zeal to see all the movies I’ve ever missed I saw The Story of the Weeping Camel via Netfix last night.

As most of the reviewers say, it was slow to the point of mesmerization, an anthropology film in many ways, in which the more manic side of the brain pops up from time to time to ask “ok, where are we going here?” From grandmother ladeling out another form of milk to the young mother brushing dust off the yurt after the howling windstorm we are curious and comfortable watching daily lives unfold.

The drama, such as it is, is that a mother camel, after a difficult (and first) birth — assisted by human beings before your very eyes– rejects the brute (literally, a big and white colt.) The camel is wealth, of course, though it’s clear by the human actions that much more and deeper is involved in the care and worry; it will die unless the mother bonds with it. Though the young woman of the film does do some hand milking and feeding through a nipple-ended horn that is not enough –probably not in food, and certainly not in bonding, leading and companionship. As the colt grows weaker and all efforts to bring the two together fail the family turns to an old tradition: a ritual with a two stringed instrument called a morin khuur.

What isn’t commented on much in the reviews I’ve read is the mysterious power of music even as it is so central to the story. The tribes in southern Mongolia apparently have a long tradition of using a certain set of ritual song and music to break the spell of rejection between mother and child, more typically sheep than camels. Initially the morin khuur is slung by a tie over the mother camel’s hump. Either from the wind or from resonance with the camel’s lowing, the strings begin to vibrate. Or perhaps, in response to the strings’ vibration the camel begins to low.

We had seen the mother camel just before snapping, spitting and growling — even to stop the offending instrument from being placed upon her; and then, in the space of minutes, we see her calm down. The morin khuur is removed and the player begins to stroke a familiar tune, to which the young woman of the family begins to sing, sweetly and clearly, her hands stroking the long fur of the camel, soothing with voice and hand. The camel seems to listen, to dwell, and to vocalize in return. The expressive eyes, which according to legend, are always looking at the horizon for the return of the antlers it was due from the gods, are a wonder to watch.

As the music and the human and the camel voices went on, as emotions and connections began to fill, I began to think about the origins of speech, how closely bound such meaning-filled sound was to the later (as I think) syllabetical morphemes of meaning; how song may well have risen as intelligence-driven imitation of the natural world, and how language might have come out of song.

As the camel calmed, the white furred colt was brought closer and finally led to suckle, from which it had been dislodged so often before by a sharp jolt to the jaw of the mother’s thigh bone, or by her simply wandering away in disinterest. And the mother stood still. The colt looked around, and suckled again. The mother encouraged it with her nose pushing at its hindquarters. The watching humans see that it is time to go. They move to the yurt for some milk and more song. The mother and child camel are left, standing and moving together, the mother camel with water spurting from her eye.

It is truly an amazing film, especially, as I understand it, that the film makers did not know what would have at the end when they began. Although I will think about the camels, and recall the temptations of modernity and TV for the youngest boy in the film, it is the power of the music I will recall most often, especially when I hear myself humming, wordlessly, in response to memories of where I’ve been or of the pleasure of friends, of work well done, of love.