Himalaya (review)

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Vertical Limit

(Best of 2001)

Nepal is not a country you hear about a lot, unless someone summits Everest blindfolded and walking backward in high heels, or until you discover that they have a royal family by learning that they no longer do. It’s a place of ancient traditions and cultures and mythologies that we in the West don’t realize still exist, or never knew of in the first place. And it’s not a place we see on film very often.

Which is part of why Eric Valli’s Himalaya is so striking. A French photographer and documentarian who has lived in Nepal for nearly 20 years, Valli knows the remote Dolpo region — in the Himalayas near the Tibetan border — intimately, and its people even better. Using a story developed with his Dolpo friends and performed mostly by Dolpo villagers playing versions of themselves, Valli has given us what he calls a “Tibetan western,” a tale of a nearly inaccessible place and its exotic inhabitants that resonates with a human truth that transcends culture.
The story is quite a simple one. Salt is the one commodity the Dolpo have to trade, and yak caravans travel annually over the mountains to exchange the salt for grain. But this year the leadership of the caravan is in dispute. After the village chief, Lhakpa, who would have led the caravan, dies accidentally, his elderly father, Tinle (Thilen Lhondup), insists he be the one to take his son’s place until his grandson, Lhakpa’s son, Tsering (Karma Wangiel), the future chief, grows up. But Tinle has a rival in Karma (Gurgon Kyap), a younger, more vital man.

But their rivalry comes down to much more than a matter of age. Tinle lives in a world of demons and angry, vengeful mountains; he believes in allowing the astrologers and monks to determine the best date for a caravan’s departure. Karma tells the villagers to get the doctor for a sick child, instead of relying on magical charms for a cure. Old ways are battling with the new, a microcosm of the larger battle being fought by the Dolpo as the modern world is beginning to intrude even into their desolate reaches.

Two caravans end up departing the village, one led by Tinle and the other by Karma, and Himalaya follows the treacherous paths they take, on narrow trails on a cliff high above a mountain lake, through waist-deep snow and blinding storms, days and weeks of walking that tire man and beast alike. Valli brings us intimately close to the danger they face and their weariness, filling his screen with human faces (you’ll wonder at how beautiful hard, worn human faces can be) and recurring imagery of clasping hands. Before the film has ended, you’ll feel as if Valli’s friendship with these people has spilled over to encompass you as well.

And as alien as the Dolpo’s world and their way of life is to us — Tsering, who accompanies his grandfather’s caravan, is excited by the prospect of seeing his first tree — their story is nevertheless immediately relevant to us. How do we temper new ways with the old? How do we find a secure balance between prudence and daring? What defines leadership, and who makes a good leader? We may never find the answers, but we cannot stop looking for them.

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