From the opening shots of Himalaya, you know you're in for something special. First-time feature film director Eric Valli deftly reveals a slice of life in a secluded part of Nepal, perched high on the mountaintops of the Himalaya. Time seems to have passed by the village of Dolpo, and an ancient way of Tibetan life still flourishes.
Originally released under the title "Caravan," the film was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award. It's the story of the battle between generations, between traditional ways and new thinking. Once a year, the men from the village of Dolpo load their yaks with bags of salt. Their caravan climbs through the beautiful but treacherous passes of the Himalaya to a far off valley where they trade their salt for enough grain to sustain them through the winter. When the old chieftain's eldest son is killed during a caravan, Karma, the leader of the young men, assumes control. But Karma's disregard for tradition doesn't sit well with the elder. The tension between the two turns into a race across the peaks of the world's highest mountains.
What sets this film apart is its realism. Director Valli has spent much of the last two decades in Nepal, and his love and respect for the people and the land is apparent. He has a gift for translating the visual beauty of the region to the screen.
Valli based his characters on Dolpo villagers he knows, and instead of using actors, called on his friends to essentially portray themselves in the film. The only actress was Lhapka Tsamchoe, who made her acting debut opposite Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet.
"One is Hollywood style," she laughs, stretching her arms out to the sides, "and the other one is a very, very low budget. I worked in the extreme. There's nothing more than this. Everything is in between those two."
It's the extreme that drives Himalaya, from the drama of its story to its production. The film was shot on location, 15,000' - up. The only way in - trekking. Conditions were so rugged that the producer and director weren't sure their young lead actress would be able to endure.
"After the first month, the director said, 'oh, you are so tough and so strong,'" Lhapka recalls. "And I said, 'whose blood and bones do I have? My parents are from Tibet, and my blood is from them.'"
Even though Tibetan blood runs in Lhapka's veins, she has lived her entire life on the flat, warm plains of Southern India. She's a city girl, who holds a bachelor of science degree in chemistry, botany and zoology. She readily admits that making the film was difficult.
"Once we are on the mountain," she explains, "no electricity, no road and only sleeping in the tent. And very, very cold. It went down to minus 20."
Once the cast and crew had arrived at a location, all the filming for that spot had to be completed. Returning for additional pick up shots was impossible. In all, filming took seven months, partly so that Valli could capture the snowstorm that was crucial to his story. But, according to Lhapka, at times the storm was so severe that shooting had to be halted.
Production was not without its danger. One of the most dramatic and difficult scenes involved the caravan on a narrow path, called the Devil's Path in the film, high above a deep lake. The actors had to be secured by hidden ropes tied around their waists.
"The most beautiful lake in my life I've seen," Lhapka recalls. "It was really dangerous, you wouldn't believe it. If you fall down and somebody doesn't know how to swim, you are going to die, unless somebody else jumps in and saves you."
Lhapka Tsamchoe is smart, funny and not at all fazed by the success of the two films she's made. While most young women who've been "discovered" and acted alongside one of the biggest stars would have packed their bags and headed to Hollywood for more glamour, Lhapka instead went to Dharamsala, current home of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
"I was learning, trying to improve my Tibetan language and attending a Buddhist philosophy class in Dharamsala Library," she explains. "And then I got a call from Kathmandu City, from the production manager of Himalaya."
An audition and an offer followed, and Lhapka began work on her second film. It's no accident that both films involve Tibet and its culture. As a Tibetan in exile, Lhapka feels that it's important to educate the rest of the world about her country. But Himalaya had an even more personal meaning - a look at her own heritage.
"For me," she explains, "it was the first time coming into contact with my parent's generation, how they lived. Very difficult. For me, it was like going to Tibet. Even though it's politically under Nepal it's originally Tibetan people, and how they lived, just like in Tibet."
And this may be as close as Lhapka gets to Tibet, at least for now.
"It's dangerous because I acted in Seven Years," she says. "And Jean Jacques Annaud, the director, is black-listed. And if I show a little bit of national feeling, you know they are - straight into jail, and I might be there for eighteen years."
But Lhapka is a determined young woman, and her resolve to visit Tibet may have been strengthened by a lesson she says she learned from Himalaya.
"I feel like you can face anything in the world now. You can do anything if you really put your heart and soul - anything. From that kind of experience, you get more strength inside."
Published on 5/25/01