Himalaya

Film Review by Jeffrey Winters

Himalaya is an exceptionally beautiful film which takes place 12,000-15,000 feet high in the Dolpo region of Nepal. The film takes place in a mountainous village in the Himalayas, as the community prepares for their annual yak-herding trek across the mountain range to exchange salt for grains.

Himalaya is the first Nepalese Oscar nominated epic. It was directed by Eric Valli, who is an acclaimed documentarian and National Geographic photographer. He has lived in Dolpo for twenty years and many of the characters in the film are friends who helped inspire the story. The faces of the non-actors are authentic and beautiful.

The story begins when the annual yak caravan returns to the village of Dolpo with salt. This salt is a barter commodity that connects the “Land of the Salt” with the “Land of the Grain.” The exchange of salt for grain is a long time tradition with these people. Their survival depends on this barter.

The proud and elderly chieftain, Tinle (Thinlen Lhondup), welcomes the caravan but immediately notices his son’s dead body stretched out on a yak. Tinle blames the strong and charismatic Karma (Gurgon Kyap) for the death of his son. This exacerbates the tension and conflict between the two men, even though Karma is not responsible for the accident which led to the death.

This conflict allows the film to operate on several levels. People from all cultures can identify with aspects of the power struggle involved in leading a village. For instance, Tinle represents the old traditions and refuses to let Karma lead the next stage of the annual yak caravan for the exchange of salt for grains.

Karma decides to challenge Tinle and starts the long trek with the young villagers. It is significant that he starts off before the date set by ancient ritual. He has turned his back on tradition and displays arrogance along with great strength.

Tinle, the old chieftain is angered by this brazen defiance to the gods, ritual, and his own directive. He decides to take a caravan himself and visits a monastery to ask his second son Norbou (Karma Tenzing) to help him lead this caravan. At first Norbou refuses, asserting he is a lama, not a caravaner, but he decides to join his stubborn and forceful father at the last minute.

Tinle mobilizes all the old timers into joining him for this very difficult trek over barren and snowy mountains. Tinle’s grandson Tsering (who is expected to be the next chief when he grows up), joins his grandfather.

Karma’s group has a four day head start. This prompts Tinle to take his aging group on a shortcut called, ‘Devil’s Path.’ This incredibly dangerous trail is a mere four feet wide and hovers above a large lake. Snow and wind surround them. Tinle is determined and pushes on.

Miraculously, he catches up to Karma and the two men begin a reluctant dance of respect and recognition. Tinle is old and the torch for chieftain must be passed on. Both caravans merge as one community during this transformation of leadership.

Throughout the story composer Bruno Coulais takes Tibetan music and creates a score that blends east and west using string ensemble and long meditation chants. This award winning music (winner best original music—Ce’sar Award), heightens the sense of community, tradition, individual ambition and the role of spirit.

Unlike American films which try to grab an audience in the first thirty seconds, Himalaya takes its time setting up the story-line, nuance, characters and struggle. Once they begin the caravan, we witness a journey of spirit, survival and community. I strongly recommend this film. Himalaya opens at the Castro on March 30th and plays for two weeks.