directed by Eric Valli
(Kino International, 2001)

French documentarian Eric Valli, also an author and National Geographic photographer, adores Nepal, his home for nearly two decades and the setting for his first dramatic feature. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and heralded with Cesar Awards in France, Himalaya pays homage to the land and people of the remote Dolpo region 12,000 feet above sea level. Drawing upon his intimate knowledge of this area, Valli's method was to craft a fictional narrative that moves and captivates the audience. By recording in this manner, the way of life of a pre-industrial culture supremely adapted to the surrounding environment, Valli's effort makes for a memorable moviegoing experience.

Featuring a cast of mostly local inhabitants essentially playing themselves, Himalaya's tale of a generational power struggle for leadership becomes fresh and exciting thanks to the dignity and spirit the performers bring to their roles. The film opens with the elder chieftain of the village, Tinle (Thinlen Chondup), confronting the body of his oldest son, brought back by a yak caravan returning from a mountainous trek to gather salt. Tinle blames Karma (Gurgon Kyap), an up-and-coming, ambitious young leader who was the deceased's friend, for his offspring's mysterious death. Tinle chooses his small grandson Passang (Karma Wangiel) to be his successor and proposes they together lead the village's caravan on its annual journey to trade salt for grain. Karma defiantly departs prior to the traditional date, beseeching Passang's mother Pema (Lhakpa Tsamchoe from Seven Years in Tibet, which made her that country's first international movie star) to join him and the young villagers. Refusing to betray her father-in-law, Pema takes Passang with her to accompany the old man, his second son Norbou (Karma Tenzing Nyima Lama), a monk with little yak-handling experience, and a few elderly caravaners to embark on a second expedition.

Himalaya then follows the two groups, their lines of salt-bearing yaks negotiating steep cliffsides and dangerous mountain passes, finally weathering a fierce climactic snowstorm. All this proves thrilling and suspenseful and not without cost to humans and beasts -- their story resolving with poignancy and emotional believability. Aptly titled after the mountain range, the film depicts the scenery in all its immense variety and awesome grandeur, making the landscape a character equal in importance to the people and their livestock.

Director Valli and his crew clearly endured the same hardships and danger that drove the plot, a heroic effort that proves well worth it for Himalaya offers a truly dazzling filmgoing experience. This project lovingly portrays a whole way of life different from that of the audience yet rich in beauty, complexity and spirituality -- peopled with charismatic, varied and sympathetic human beings who just happen to be Asians. The movie opens a window on a world one wishes that globalization's homogenizing will never touch -- a world where: villagers plan their trading excursions in accordance with the alignment of constellations, folks believe they can cure illnesses by holding archery contests to target the demonic causes, mourners make mincemeat of the dead and leave the remains for vultures to devour -- lives dominated by their beautiful and harsh mountains environment yet lived in harmony with it.

Himalaya treats viewers with its breathtaking vistas and engaging and vibrant people with their utterly fascinating, unfamiliar way of life shown in mesmerizing detail (their faces, clothing, dwellings, household artifacts and crafts all a joy to behold). This movie deserves the widest possible audience. Its exquisite score of traditional music and chants, innovatively arranged, perfectly complements the events on screen. Fated for limited art house distribution, Himalaya should be sought after and enjoyed, even if it takes a yak caravan to find it!

[ by Amy Harlib ]
Rambles: 20 August 2001

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