In the outback of Australia, a herd of camel wanders, looking for sustenance with the company of others. But then a helicopter and gunshots interrupts their idyllic moment, and one of the herd’s number is shot down. But the camel isn’t killed. Instead, it was tranquilized. And when the camel wakes, alone and abandoned by its herd, it has a collar around its neck.
The camel searches for a new herd to join, traversing the great expanse looking for friends. But somehow, each time, the helicopters and gunshots follow the camel around, bringing death and fear. Soon the camel makes a connection between his collar and the helicopters, and must make a choice: between finding a new herd or facing life on the outback alone.
Writer-director Alison James’s exceptional dramatic short has no dialogue and no human actors whose faces we ever see. But what it does have is a propulsive, heartwrenching story, a beautifully desolate setting in western Australia and an incredible amount of empathy for its animal cast, who are able to evoke the richest themes of this story: the primal yearning for connection and the deep pain of loneliness when we don’t have it.
Though the story was scripted and planned in the same way as any fiction film featuring human performers, the short is based on a real-life practice in Australia, where wild camels have no natural predator. To control their population, one camel is captured and fitted with a tracking device that gives the film its title. Because camels are social, they will seek out a herd, and the tracking device allows hunters to fly in to their location and kill the herd, leaving only the collar-wearer alive to then find a new community — and repeat the process again.
There is no dialogue in the film, but none is needed with such resonant visuals and superlative editing. Each shot of the film communicates a remarkable amount of meaning and feeling with visual acuity, whether it’s in the framing, the sun-soaked yet melancholic quality of the cinematography or the beautifully evocative cello score. The beautiful shots of the herd in the sunset of the outback relay the bliss and peace of their life together, and the sequences where the helicopters appear with noise and gunfire are chaotic and frightful in their suddenness and fragmentation.
Despite the fact that the leads are non-human, we understand our collared camel’s deepest, almost primal desire for companionship. The camels in the film — and especially the lead “actor” Sonic — have remarkably mobile, expressive faces and movements. There are no tricks or gimmicks in how they’re captured: they are thinking and feeling creatures, just like us.
Long-listed for the Oscars, “Judas Collar” melds storytelling and craftsmanship with precision and care. As viewers, we achieve a great intimacy with our collared camel, and as viewers, we are able to immerse ourselves in her emotional arc, and her journey as she comes to a difficult realization: wherever she goes, she brings death and destruction with her. This emotional intimacy that makes her final choice all the more heartbreaking in the end, for her and for us as viewers. It makes for a deeply moving and unforgettable film — this may be a short, but its beauty, resonance and compassion is infinite.