The Saltmen Of Tibet

1997, Movie, NR, 110 mins


Ethnographic filmmaking at its finest. High among the snowy peaks of the Himalayas lie the vast salt lakes of Northern Tibet -- dry lake beds worked for thousands of years by nomadic saltmen. Ulrike Koch located a community of these rapidly dwindling salt-gatherers, and was granted the rare privilege of accompanying a four-man caravan on the annual, monthlong trek to Lake Tsentso. Equipped with a digital video camera and a small crew, Koch captured the saltmen and their herd of 160 yak as they made the arduous journey across the Tibetan hills, setting up camp each night and contending with bad weather and a sick yak. Along the way, the saltmen -- who live and work according to a fascinating blend of ancient folklore, religious ritual and worldly knowledge -- obey strict rules to appease the lake Goddess: Only past a certain point on the journey may the secret salt language be spoken; burnt offerings must be made; there can be no killing, fornicating or farting at the lake itself. The climactic week of salt gathering is a sight to behold: At the luminous, crystalline lake bed, the grains of salt are raked into heaps of ever-increasing size, then sewn into sacks and loaded onto the yak. Koch gains an unusual degree of intimacy by forgoing explanatory narration: the only voices heard are those of the saltmen themselves. This stunningly photographed film is full of long, leisurely takes that are often accompanied by nothing but the sound of the wind and an occasional yak. But it's a mesmerizing experience that's only enriched by the knowledge that what we're watching has rarely, if ever, been seen before. And with the onslaught of modern methods of salt gathering, the lives of the saltmen, like so many other aspects of Tibetan culture, may never be seen again. (In Tibetan, with English subtitles.) leave a comment --Ken Fox

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The Saltmen Of Tibet
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