Preparations include sewing yak pelts into backpacks. In a three-month expedition, the men will confront sleet and cold with nary a miracle fabric. Since it’s believed that women would anger the goddess of the salt lake and jeopardize the harvest, the femmes stay behind and keep the home fires burning, eternally in the dark as to where, exactly, their menfolk go.
With their wizened faces, high cheekbones and valiant dispositions, the saltmen plod onward and upward, camping along the way and observing the strange but necessary ritual of arranging their yak herd in a virtual pen demarcated only by rope en route to the high plateau of the Himalayas, at 15,000 feet. Once they reach their destination, the men mold moist salt into little pointed mounds with special shovels, patiently shaping the salt mounds until they look like a sea of miniature glaciers.
The impact is all the more bittersweet when trucks cart off salt dumpster-style. The intrepid saltmen take their haul back in yak packs, but the commercial salt industry is about to industrialize the traditional nomads out of existence.
Music is a crucial component of the docu, whether it’s the spellbinding a cappella ballad performed by a woman at pic’s outset, a passage of hypnotic chanting or the subtle accompaniment created by native Tibetans and Hamburg musicians in a cross-cultural jam session during post-production.
China specialist Koch did location scouting and casting on Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” and was a.d. on Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Urga.” She had planned to shoot on 16mm but was thwarted when, despite carefully laid groundwork and written assurances, the crew’s cameras and film were confiscated by local officials. Transfer from digital video is first-rate.