When Eric Valli first traveled the Dolpo Valley of Nepal, which may be with the exception of the Easter Islands, the most remote inhabited area on earth, he was struck by more than the stark and powerful beauty of the terrain. He was enthralled by the mountain people he met, their strength, their openness and most of all their tolerance. Its been over twenty years since that first trip and since then hes photographed their way of life for National Geographic and Life magazines, among others, as well as written books about them. As one of the few outsiders to live among them, to form and maintain long-lasting friendships with them, he was able to present them to the outside world as few others could. With his film HIMALAYA, he breathes life into those pictures.
The fictional story is based on actual events, but there is an almost mythical, even archtypal quality to the tale. The head of the Dolpo tribe loses his only son. His grandson is only a child, too young to take over if the old man himself dies. From there ensues a struggle within the clan and within the leader, Tinle (Thilen Lhondup), between tradition and necessity. When his daughter-in-law and grandson are drawn to a charismatic outsider, threatening Tinles position as leader, a formidable, sometimes foolish clash of wills leads both men to make rash decisions that could lead to disaster.
As you would expect from a photographer of Vallis caliber, the images he has created at magnificent. Images like a caravan that seems to float down a mountainside, the rush of a herd of yaks across a plain, or a precarious trek clinging to a narrow path on a cliffs face are powerful poetry. But the story itself is, too, and so are the performances. This last is a welcome surprise for these non-professional, in most cases, first-time actors deliver subtle and finely nuanced performances that are usually considered the province of highly trained and experienced actors. It is also thanks to this skilled collaboration between filmmaker and subject, this it is also a document of a culture that is fast disappearing, with fascinating glimpses of the rhythms of daily life from washing clothes to sanctifying the dead and done without a cheap expostion that would jar the audience out of the universe encompassed within the film. A branding ritual that also heals takes place without discussion, only the steady eyes of the healer and the anxious ones of family members. Yet, there is also the flash of recognition, the universal truths that make us all one human family, whether mourning for our dead or laughing with exasperation over the generation gap.
HIMALAYA is as aesthetically pleasing as it is emotionally touching, which explains its phenomenal success world-wide. Its about time it made it to our shores.