Provost's Film Series
March 19, 2009
Introduction by Daniel Johnson
An Unfamiliar Place
Few places on earth are farther from Hollywood than the high desert of the northern Dolpo region in Nepal. It is not just that the Dolpo stands nearly halfway around the world from the Los Angeles basin. The terrestrial barriers—most notably, the peaks of 21,000+ feet that ring the plateau—make it even more distant. So, too, do the climatic extremes, where snows and temperatures of -15°F are followed mere months later by pounding sun, searing winds, and temperatures topping 105°F. There is nothing lush or green about the valleys wedged between the arms of the Himalayan peaks as they plunge down to meet the Tibetan plateau. No trees or bushes can grow at such heights. The most that the ground will yield are some low grasses for grazing, a few heads of barley, and salt—tons and tons of salt. Left behind by vast inland seas created millions of years ago when the earth thrust itself skyward, the salt flats to the north are the lifeblood of this severe and forbidding place.
Added to these geographic elements are political realities that place the Dolpo at an even greater remove. Entry into the northernmost parts of the region is forbidden to tourists and most other outsiders. Until recent years, when trekking companies have stepped in to offer surety and safe passage for groups of well-heeled trekkers, the government of Nepal would grant access only to those who could demonstrate an understanding of the region and some fluency in the languages spoken there.
Then there are the Dolpo-pa themselves, the people of the Dolpo. With the Chinese occupation and repression of the rest of the Tibetan plateau, the Dolpo has become a final refuge of traditional Tibetan culture. There they have managed to preserve a world—a way of living, a way of being, a way of seeing the cosmos and one’s place in it—that is worlds apart from our more metropolitan sensibilities. Whether they will be able to maintain it in the face of mounting external pressures is uncertain, enough so that one Dolpo-pa felt compelled to have it captured on film before it disappeared altogether. The result is Eric Valli’s Himalaya.
A Familiar Story
Valli probably understands more than anyone just how far away the Dolpo is from Hollywood. The photographer and author—whose work has been featured in National Geographic, Géo, The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian and Life—splits his time between homes in Los Angeles, Paris and Nepal. He first encountered the Dolpo and its peoples when on assignment there for National Geographic in 1981. He observed his first salt caravan over the Himalayas two years later, at which time he decided to settle there. Over the years he became a regular and welcome guest in many Dolpo villages and grew to be fast friends with several Dolpo-pas. It was in conversation with Valli that one of these friends—a man named Thinlen Lhondup—first hit on the idea of capturing the world of the Dolpo on film. Valli enthusiastically agreed to help make it happen.
A prior experience with documentary film production led Valli to shun the format and to work instead on a narrative-based feature film. But the narrative would have to be rooted in the place and its people. Thinlen and another close friend of Valli’s—Tenzing Norbou, a lama and painter who had never stepped beyond the walls of his monastery before Valli met him—would be primary consultants on the storyboard and script. The actors would be drawn from among the Dolpo-pa, with only one of the characters being played by a professional actor. Thinlen himself would take on the role of Tinle, one of the film’s central characters. And of course, the film would have to be shot on location, with all of the challenges that would present: shooting for nine months at altitudes up to 15,000 feet, coordinating hundreds of extras and actors who may have to leave any time to attend to the harvest or to the death of a community member, hauling five tons of filming equipment and supplies along the narrow, twisting, treacherous paths of the Himalayas. It sounds like an epic and extraordinary achievement, until one witnesses the spectacle of the salt trek that is such an ordinary part of Dolpo life.
Yet for all their concern with capturing the spirit of the Dolpo people, Valli and his Dolpo-pa collaborators ended up telling what is in many ways a familiar story. Valli himself acknowledges this curious consequence of his commitment to staying true to his sources. As he notes, “Some might even compare their lives to characters straight out of a Jack London or Joseph Conrad novel. This film is a sort of western—a Tibetan western—a universal and timeless saga that tells a story of power, pride and glory that could have taken place in the seas of Japan, the plains of Normandy or deep in Texas. ” The film’s pacing, texture and cinematography certainly owe much to the conventions established by the John Ford westerns of old. And even those who are not so familiar with the classic western will recognize much in the storyline itself: the leader of a younger generation rises up to challenge the authority and traditions of the elders. He finds, however, that he still has much to learn from them before the mantle of leadership is finally handed down. It is a story as old as Isaac and Jacob, and as fresh today as The Dark Knight.
What happens when such a familiar story is set in such an unfamiliar place warrants reflection. At the very least, it may allow us to see the tale through fresh eyes, attending to narrative elements that we hadn’t seen before or finding another layer of meaning hidden beneath what we had come to regard as the story’s simple surface. But there is something more about this particular unfamiliar place, something that the best of the classic westerns found and exploited as well—the capacity to take the ordinary happenings of real lives, hard lived, and to infuse them with a sense of the mythic. In this one respect, the Dolpo may have something in common with Hollywood after all. While Hollywood is known as a place where dreams are made, the Dolpo is a land that produces their (naturally) more elevated counterparts in the form of myths and legends. This is the same region, after all, that inspired the mythic Shangri-La in James Hilton’s Lost Horizons—a perpetually happy land, populated by near immortals, forever untouched by the outside world.
It is hard to imagine that the Dolpo will forever remain that unspoiled place. With every encroachment from east and west, we draw nearer to a day when the world of the Dolpo-pa will exist nowhere else but in myth and legend. With hope, some scenes from that world will be faithfully recorded before it disappears, whether in a film like Himalaya, or in the fresco painted by a Tibetan lama who may or may not have seen them with his own eyes.