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The Saltmen of Tibet

Sinologist-filmer Ulrike Koch and her skeleton crew smuggled camera gear into Tibet to document four men and 160 yak on their annual spring pilgrimage to the remote lakes where they gather raw salt, continuing a ritual that goes back more than 2,000 years but may not last a decade more. This leisurely yet riveting look at the majestic vistas and tradition-bound people of a still isolated and increasingly threatened enclave is a worthy complement to the splashy Tibet-centered narratives from Annaud and Scorsese.

Sinologist-filmer Ulrike Koch and her skeleton crew smuggled camera gear into Tibet to document four men and 160 yak on their annual spring pilgrimage to the remote lakes where they gather raw salt, continuing a ritual that goes back more than 2,000 years but may not last a decade more. This leisurely yet riveting look at the majestic vistas and tradition-bound people of a still isolated and increasingly threatened enclave is a worthy complement to the splashy Tibet-centered narratives from Annaud and Scorsese.

Respectful and informative tribute to a dying tradition brings us into an exotic, self-contained culture as privileged observers. Via song, prayer, conversation and concerted trekking, viewers share in the humor and faith of a hard-working yet easygoing population following nomadic tradition at the “roof of the world.”

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.

The Saltmen of Tibet

(SWISS-GERMAN -- DOCU)

Production: A Catpics Coprods. (Switzerland)/Duran Film (Germany) production. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.)Produced by Alfi Sinniger. Co-producers, Christoph Bicker, Knut Winkler. Directed, written by Ulrike Koch.

Crew: Camera (color, video-to-film), Pio Corradi; editor, Magdolna Rokob; music, Stefan and Frank Wulff; sound (Dolby), Andreas Koppen, Uve Haussig, Pierre Brand; assistant director, Loten Dahortsang. Reviewed at Vienna Film Festival (Viennale), Oct. 24, 1997. (Also in Taormina; Pusan --- competing; Sundance festivals.) Running time: 108 MIN.

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