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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Yaks and Yurts
by Donald Levit

In Summer Pasture, three young documentarians come close to what seems impossible today, that is, an apolitical film shot in and about Tibet. Playing the solar-charged-batteries HDV work by ear during a hundred days in a tent beside their subjects’, Lynn True, Nelson Walker and Tsering Perlo are unobtrusive in recording a nuclear nomad family in Kham, or Eastern Tibet, of a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of China’s western Sichuan Province. Kham Film Project has “no political, governmental or religious affiliation.”

Not absolutely alone, because other intermarried families of relatives set up alongside, father Locho and mother Yama (and still-unnamed “pale chubby” baby daughter -- names are not conferred until the second year of life, at the discretion of a lama) movingly open their daily lives, their thoughts, hopes and fears. The result is not the “mix of documentary and [semi-scripted] drama” that is The Cave of the Yellow Dog, similar in movement in Mongolia; nor is it quite the Sweetgrass anthropological-ethnographical view of another disappearing way of life worlds away.

Filming was in 2007, when Beijing relaxed enough to allow it. To be safe, True and Walker emphasized (Perlo is on a shoot back in Tibet) footage was shown to, and vetted by, its subjects (projected onto a sheet at freezing 9 pm) and local authorities there as well as scholars here, prior to this New York première during IDA’s 14th Annual DocuWeeks Showcase (and as-yet unscheduled PBS showing).

Horses are for travel in the vast, largely roadless region, but the descendents of generations of nomads depend on grazing herds of yaks as suppliers of hair (for cloth), milk, cheese, butter, meat and leather. These large long-haired oxen are not cow-eyed cuddly but so ingrained in the culture that owners will not sell if they suspect a slaughterhouse destination and spend hours tracking what may be their rustled herds.

As naturally as the seasons change on this demanding high plateau, the two principals’ lives are revealed, and it makes no difference that the half-dozen neighbor-relations are indistinguishable even after printed-title introductions. Only a few unclear offscreen questions prompt the couple as Locho terms himself “a bad man” who in youth would seduce all four daughters of a family and yet at the same time appreciates woman’s hard work and motherhood.

Love at first sight in spring, intimacy in summer, marriage in autumn for this couple. He did get a girl pregnant after that; with no moralizing or condemnation, Yama offered him his freedom, though in the end they paid the girl and depleted their small savings. Yama in turn lost two babies and they dote on and fret about this surviving spiky-haired infant. The wife knows she has less clock time than better-off town-dwellers for dandling the child but joys in filling every moment with housework, milking and collecting dung for fire-fuel. With the ruddy cheeks of high-altitude winds, she croons snatches of song, yawns and would appear a picture of health did it not come out that she has had brushes with death and presently experiences swelling and pain in her side. (The documentary does not confirm that it is hepatitis or that she subsequently gave birth to a second, healthy girl.)

April is the cruellest month, spring the harshest time of year, but everything is appreciated for itself and for the contrast it provides. The wife woke the film crew at 3 am to observe milking, and it was the husband who felt it important to record the hillside meeting of males concerning government pressure. Together with other remote, and thus less controllable, groups, they are being squeezed into “progress” and off the land.

Unwrapping his stash of caterpillar fungus as carefully as he lathers his cheeks with acne cream, Locho explains how the growth is also effecting change. As much money can be made in one month selling the prized delicacy as from an entire year’s toil with animals. With this easier introduction to cash economy, nomads move to larger settlements, electric wires are strung, roads built and the millennial herder’s life disappears.

Beautifully transferred, with appropriate low-illumination graininess at night, Summer Pasture depicts and does not give in to easy romanticization of “natural man.” Locho and Yama acknowledge the coming benefits and lament their own illiteracy. They will continue another six years and then move to an urban place, where the child will be able to attend school and he will drive a tractor. 

(Released by True-Walker Productions; not rated by MPAA.)

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