© Kino International
© Kino International

Kino International, 2001
Directed by Eric Valli
109 minutes, in Tibetan with English subtitles

When Eric Valli, a photographer for National Geographic, author, and documentarian, got the urge to film a salt caravan in the Dolpo region of Nepal, he wanted, he says, to pay homage to an extraordinary culture on the verge of transformation by the encroaching tides of tourism and modernity. But the prospect of shooting for months at fifteen thousand feet made the project seem like

a pipe dream. It was Thinlen Lhondup, an old Dolpopa chief and Valli’s friend of twenty years, who convinced the photographer to make the movie. He told Valli, “You need to do this for the Dolpo. People should know what we have been.” In Himalaya, Lhondup’s culture gets its homage, and filmgoers get a lush, engaging film (in which Lhondup stars) that was a 1999 Oscar nominee for best foreign film, and is happily getting national distribution in the U.S. this year.

Secluded by a horseshoe-shaped fortress of mountains in northwestern Nepal, Dolpo is said to be the world’s last bastion of unadulterated Tibetan Buddhist culture. Tourists are still barred from the region, and for a foreigner, Valli has unprecedented intimacy with the area and its inhabitants; he actually accompanied some dozen times the salt caravan he films.

Valli captures the stark and gorgeous scenery of the area as he would for National Geographic, along with cameos of traditional culture: women washing clothes in dancelike unison; lamas making astrological predictions; a sky burial; the remarkable “sunglasses,” made from strands of yak hair stretched across the caravaneers’ faces, which they don in the aftermath of a blizzard to prevent sun blindness.

© Kino International
© Kino International

Most of the “characters” in the film play versions of themselves, and Valli has done an extraordinary job of drawing vibrant, unselfconscious performances from non-actors. While the characters are archetypes—the aged chief, the virile young leader, the stoic widow—the script’s simplicity, flecked with humor, keepsHimalaya from becoming leaden or stuck in the realm of ethnography.

The film opens with a stunning shot of a village chiseled into a dusty Himalayan promontory, overhanging a field of shimmering grain. Surveying the expanse is the wizened village elder, Thinle (Thinlen Lhondup), who awaits the return of his son, the tribal chief, heading a yak caravan bearing salt to be exchanged for more grain.

But when his son returns dead on the back of a yak, Thinle immediately accuses the caravan’s second-in-command, Karma (Gurgon Kyap), of having caused the death. Karma was his son’s best friend, and all the caravaneers support Karma’s story that the chief had died by attempting a dangerous shortcut.

Thinle’s grief manifests as rage, and he refuses to listen to reason. He’s determined to lead the yak caravan—still loaded with salt to be exchanged for grain—down a treacherous range on a month-long trek to the agricultural lowlands. Thinle is weakened by age and hasn’t led the caravan for a decade, but he is adamant about retaining the tribal leadership so that his grandson can become chief. His second son, Norbou (Karma Tenzing Nyima Lama), a monk since the age of eight, decides to leave the monastery to help his father. Norbou’s clumsy adjustment to the role of herdsman reveals Dolpolpa humor: In one scene, the lama flaps his hands at the yaks and nearly starts a stampede. “If you pray to the gods like that,” laughs his father, “I’ll bet you scare them, too.”

As the trek unfolds, replete with hairy cliff-edge climbs and a near-fatal blizzard, the dramatic conflict between Thinle and Karma plumbs the tension between old guard and new. Thinle is a fearless chief with a will and spirit of iron, but his time is over. Karma is the tribe’s natural leader, a pragmatist devoted to his people and culture, but wary of his elders’ passive piety and superstition. Valli manages to eke real poignancy out of Thinle’s resistance to passing the mantle to a younger, less traditional man, especially one who is not his son. And in the end, the rivals’ rapprochement feels earned.

As Karma, Gurgon Kyap has charisma and an earthy sensuality. Lhakpa Tsamchoe, a Tibetan exile who made her acting debut in Seven Years in Tibet, is quietly affecting as Thinle’s widowed daughter-in-law, Perna. And Nyima Lama, who had never ventured past his monastery walls when Valli first met him (they are also old friends), offers an extraordinary performance as the subtle, wise, and devoted son whose monastic training has served him well. In a scene toward the film’s close, when Thinle sees Karma and Perna falling in love and prepares to draw his knife on Karma, Norbou stops him gently with dharmic insight:

“Things are working themselves out,” he whispers. “Just let them for once.”