`Himalaya,' A Triumph Of Faith And Endurance



The Hartford Courant, August 03, 2001

Several years ago, National Geographic photographer, documentary filmmaker and author Eric Valli showed one of his Nepalese friends a copy of Akira Kurosawa's classic "The Seven Samurai." The result of that private screening halfway across the globe is "Himalaya," the Academy Award-nominated drama that Valli calls a "Tibetan western," which stars his old friend, Thinlen Lhondup. (The film was originally released under the title "Caravan," which still appears in the opening credits.)

Valli, a longtime resident of Nepal, was in a unique position to record and faithfully interpret the lifestyles of Dolpopas, denizens of an isolated, high-altitude region of the Himalayas. Writing with Olivier Dazat, Valli created a classic drama about power, pride and religious faith set inside the tradition of the Dolpa caravan, an annual ritual in which villagers herd hundreds of yaks, all laden with bags of salt, over treacherous mountain passes to reach the lowlands where salt is traded for grain.

Valli and his crew filmed for nine months in grueling conditions at altitudes ranging from 12,000 to 15,000 feet, and they have produced a filmic record of a vanishing culture that is as visually breathtaking and hard-won as Ulrike Koch's extraordinary, mind-expanding 1997 documentary "The Saltmen of Tibet." Thinlen plays Tinle, the aged chief of a Dolpa village. As the film opens, the sudden death of his son, Lhakpa, creates grief and a problem. There is no one to lead the annual yak caravan. Lhakpa's best friend, Karma (Gurgon Kyap), is the obvious choice, but Tinle refuses him. He prefers to enlist the help of his other son, the Buddhist lama and mural painter, Norbou (played by another of Valli's good friends, Karma Tenzing Nyima Lama). In defiance of Tinle's resolution and the religious divination determining the most auspicious starting date, Karma sets off with a caravan. Tinle, meanwhile, rallies his supporters and begins a similar trek, taking with him Lhakpa's widow, Pema (Lhakpa Tsamchoe), who has refused to defy Tinle by accompanying Karma, and her son Passang (Karma Wangiel). The contest of wills between a stubborn but faithful old man and the faithless but competent and charismatic Karma is borne out against a backdrop of physical challenges that would impress Hollywood stunt coordinators. There are cliffhangers, deadly storms, waist-deep snowdrifts and tests of extreme endurance.

If the arc of the story is a bit predictable, the characters and the footage are not. Valli's shots of the Himalayas' high-altitude wonders, all scored to award-winning, Tibetan-inspired music by Bruno Coulais, are simply magnificent. He opens his film with ochre-colored shots of yaks' hooves stirring up the dusty soil. Later, there are breathtaking shots of snowy mountains, Buddhist prayer flags flying in the wind, dangerous passages on a precarious pathway and the blinding white-out that accompanies a rogue storm.

The actors, most of them nonprofessionals, look their parts because, often enough, they are their parts. Thinlen is a native of Dolpo; Nyima is a Tibetan lama and a painter; and Gurgon is a former yakpa (cowboy) from eastern Tibet who fled Chinese occupation by moving to India where he works as a chef.

"Himalaya"'s visual fascinations notwithstanding, the most lingering aspect of Valli's film is the record it creates of lives lived in respectful relationship with nature and with powerful tenets of faith governing the biggest and smallest aspects of life. (The scene in which Lhakpa's body is dismembered in a religious ceremony and fed to buzzards on a hillside will disturb some, but it is a keen insight into the lives of Dolpopas, in which nothing is wasted, and theconnections between men and beasts are carefully observed.)

In the film, as in life, the Dolpopas triumph by dint of their physical strength, endurance and faith, concepts too far removed from the lives of most Western audiences. But for all of the material comforts and conveniences available here, "Himalaya" does a wonderful job of showingus what our culture too often lacks.

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