himalaya directed by Eric Valli, written by Valli and Olivier Dazat, produced by Jacques Perrin and Christophe Barratier, with Thinlen Lhondup, Karma Wangiel, Lhakpa Tsamchoe and Gurgon Kyap. 104 minutes. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (August 10). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 65. Rating: NNNN
himalaya is eric valli's love let-ter to his friends and neighbours, Tibetan villagers living in the highest inhabited place on earth. Valli, a native Frenchman who stumbled into Nepal's remote Dolpo region 20 years ago, decided to make the Shangri-La-like valley his part-time home. Like a character out of James Hilton's Lost Horizon, he has embraced the ancient life of the ethnic Tibetan villagers, who are high-altitude yak herders.
Each year, they mount an arduous caravan over the mountains, carrying salt that's traded for grain.
Valli's film, shot in Tibetan and starring the people of his village, follows two fictional caravans, one led by the rebellious Karma (Gurgon Kyap) and the other by elderly chieftain Tinle (Thinlen Lhondup).
Tinle is angry over Karma's decision to break with tradition and leave before the appointed date set by the village elders, and follows Karma with his own caravan made up mostly of aged villagers.
Both groups trek up across the mountains, through snowstorms and down razor-thin trails with their loaded yaks.
These images are why we're watching. Valli sets his cameras high up, capturing stunning long shots of the people and their animals against the barren Tibetan landscape.
Valli makes his living as a freelance photographer and has an intimate knowledge of the region's ever-changing light.
Although he brought in French cinematographers to do the actual shooting, it's through his eyes that the drama unfolds.
One scene of the people and yaks stuggling down an incredibly narrow ledge creates almost unbearable tension. For a still photographer, Valli has a solid grasp of editing and character development.
The acting is, as you'd expect, simplistic. Most of the villagers had never seen a movie camera -- or a movie, for that matter -- so it was Valli's job to explain the concept of acting.
His painstaking effort was worth it, since the performances, although not inspired, are touching and the emotions the villagers express are true-to-life.
Valli came up with the idea for the film when his best friend, Lhondup, who plays Tinle in the movie, was infected with tuberculosis and recuperated in Valli's home in Kathmandu. Lhondup's reaction to viewing Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai on video was to suggest that Valli capture the Tibetan villagers' disappearing way of life on film.
It took over nine months to film, with a cast of 20 non-professional actors, a French crew and Nepalese sherpas who hauled enough food to feed 100 people a day.
For their efforts, Himalaya won a best-foreign-film Oscar nomination, a first for a Tibetan-language film.