SALTMEN OF TIBET, THE (Salzmänner von Tibet, Die)(director/writer: Ulrike Koch; cinematographer: Pio Corradi; editor: Magdolna Rokob; music: Stefan & Frank Wulff; Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Christoph Bicker/Alfi Sinniger/Knut Winkler; Zeitgeist Video; 1997-Swiss/Germany-in Tibetan with English subtitles)
“It’s an amazingly moving film of sublime beauty.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
An astonishing Swiss-German produced documentary by the German Ulrike Koch. She’s a filmmaker, Sinologist and ethnographer who sneaked cameras past the Chinese authorities who denied her permission to film in a remote part of the northern Tibetan plains a small band of nomadic saltmen who take a caravan of 160 yaks on a three-month round-trip for their annual spring trek to Lake Tsentso to collect salt, their only means of survival for the year. If the price is right they sell the salt and/or trade it for barley. This annual pilgrimage to Lake Tsentso, or to the other salt lakes in the region, has been taking place for 2,000 years, but has never before been recorded. This amazing film captures this way of life that might be soon extinct due to encroaching modernization.
We learn that only men are allowed by tradition to go to the salt lake, as superstition has it that women will make the salt disappear. Cameraman Pio Corradi brilliantly photographs the arid landscape where the yak herd slowly treks and the herders who show a deep concern for their animals are on foot and find it lucky if they come upon a rare grassy spot so the herd can graze. In the background are beautiful snow-capped mountain peaks. The four saltmen observe the age-old taboos and pay their sincere respects to the nature deities to ensure they have a successful journey and fetch enough of “the tears of Tara.”
There’s a spiritual majesty in the journey that’s seen in the gentle herders and in the wondrous images of the landscape and the sounds of the Tibetan chants. It’s an homage film to the saltmen who have not yet left their past traditions for the materialism of the increasingly soulless modern world. This slow-moving film gives us a chance to look into their pure hearts and understand what the practice of Buddhism means to them as a daily part of their life as they take this laborious trip and make it like a holy pilgrimage with special chants and prayers and sacrifices (after they collect the salt in sacks made from yak pelts, their final ritual at the lake is to leave behind as a sacrifice to the lake some hand-made miniature animal sculptures made out of mud). When the herders are in the region of the lake, they speak only in a mysterious saltmen language that is meant only for the ears of other saltmen and for the Buddhist deities that are safeguarding their journey and not for outsiders or women.
It’s an amazingly moving film of sublime beauty and genuine simplicity that shows the strength of peaceful men connecting with nature and trying to be in harmony with its forces so that the world can be a better place. These are people that all good people can root for without any qualms.
REVIEWED ON 8/11/2008 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DENNIS SCHWARTZ