The Saltmen of Tibet
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Shot under extreme conditions in one of the world's most remote locations, The Saltmen of Tibet is a work of sublime beauty and epic scale. Documenting the ancient traditions and day-to-day rituals of a Tibetan nomadic community, filmmaker Ulrike Koch tra
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Sad that this epic is little know to western audiences. Time for it to come out of the shadows of time to thrill us all. Hope more people will collect and thereby help preserve this film.
Having traveled Tibet I have seen some scenes likes the ones depicted in the movie, however, the landscapes in Northern Tibet are even pristine, probably because nobody lives there, the conditions are too tough.
Most interestingly, the men are nomads who move around with their yak herds so the yaks can feed. They live in yurts which considering the high elevation with big temperature changes must be difficult. Yet all of them, including the women and younger people seems perfectly in balance with themselves, nature and their gods. This is one of the things that amazed we the most when traveling in the part of the world, everybody is always happy, nobody seems to be jealous, cranky, dissatisfied or have any other remotely negative feeling.
The smallest actions, like drinking tea with yak milk have ceremonial character, every second is enjoyed and valued.
Highly recommend, this is a stunning portrait of precious people, landscapes, and individual moments.
Gisela Hausmann, author & blogger
Not much, actually. So it was to the audience's benefit, and to the director's credit, that he let the camera do the talking. In simple documentary style, with no narration and unobtrusive background music, the film crew follow a group of four men who make the annual trek from their summer camping grounds to Lake Tsentso to collect salt. We watch them as they plan the expedition, collecting yaks from members of the community that will carry back the salt, initiating a new member into their fold, and making the ritual offerings to propitiate the gods and ask their favor in making a successful journey. The group sets out with over 160 yaks on a month-long trek across rugged and beautiful landscape, the struggle of the journey made all the more touching by buses, cars, and lorries whizzing past on a nearby road. These men will be perhaps the last generation to collect salt in the traditional manner. They seem to be aware of this, which makes their journey all the poignant, The Saltmen of Tibet all that more precious for documenting a culture in its dying days.
This film deals with the same people, if not the same individuals, as the book "Nomads of Western Tibet" by Melvyn C. Goldstein and Cynthia M. Beall, ] and the two complement each other nicely. The book is highly recommended for those interested in more about this culture, and the photography, if anything, is even more stunning.
The film concentrates on four men as they mount their yearly expedition with pack animals to collect salt at a distant lake or salt-pan. Formerly, many groups made the trip, and it was a mainstay of their economy. Now, due to competition from salt gatherers using trucks, it is barely profitable and fewer and fewer make the effort.
The focus is narrowly on the trip and preparation, and the process of gathering salt once they've arrived, all of which is surrounded by centuries of custom and ritual (there is even a secret language spoken only on the salt trip). But we learn much of the more general culture as it impinges during or before the expedition. It largely could have been filmed a hundred years ago, though occasional telephone/power lines or a passing truck intrude jarringly.
Except for a brief comment at the end, the story is told entirely in the images and (subtitled) sounds captured by the camera. The subjects do speak at length, for if not to the camera, and talk about much of what they are doing, but still some context (even a map) would have been appreciated. [An optional commentary track on the DVD would have been an excellent way to provide this.] Even if the filmmakers were not to add a Western, anthropological, viewpoint (for instance, pointing out that when the women are not allowed to go on the expedition, this might have something to do with their being indispensible to the running of the main encampment), the exigencies of filming don't let them provide all the context that would be there for a person on the spot. For instance, at one point there is a sequence where one of the saltmen ladles steaming brownish liquid into a small churn -- is this tea which he is mixing with butter in the Tibetan fashion, or is it yak milk, or ...? We aren't there, didn't observe what went before and after, and can't even smell the steam.
Nonetheless, this is a fascinating look at this one aspect of the nomads' life, even if it lacks something in context and narrative connectivity.
Obligatory complaint: the subtitles are quite hard to read against the light tones of the landscape, which seriously distracts from watching the film itself. Better technology for displaying them does exist.