Across the green velvet hills and sweeping grassland of eastern Tibet, nomads have moved along with the seasons for 4,000 years. Whether they’ll last another 20 is the question in “Summer Pasture,” a remarkably intimate docu woven out of tradition and change, and the endearing subjects who contend with both. Avoidance of any political issues will likely derail interest among free-Tibet factions, but Lynn True and Nelson Walker’s portrait is rich in anthropological value. An extended festival run seems likely before cable play.
The lifestyle of the Tibetan nomads — specifically, a cattle herder named Locho; his wife, Yama; and their infant girl, whom the local Lama has not yet named — is one of relentless work, merciless weather and constant anxiety. But there’s humor as well: The film opens in summer 2007 with a kind of annual nomad convention, an event that suggests Burning Man with better PA announcements (“The Monastery Assn. is missing a female yak … “). At their 15,000-foot elevation in the Kham region of Tibet (officially part of China’s Sichuan province), there’s not a lot to laugh about, but life certainly isn’t dire; it is, however, uncertain.
Will the likes of Locho and Yama be able to continue living as they do, or will they be pushed by circumstances and economics (and, although it’s not articulated, by Beijing), into becoming city people? Up to 90% of their contemporaries are moving into one town or another, and Locho isn’t sure he can hold out, although he says he wants to.
Locho comes across as something of a knucklehead, a boyish rube who enjoys a lingering sense of male entitlement. It’s really Yama who captivates the viewer, with her amazing face and tireless work ethic: She rises before dawn to collect the yak pies that dot the carpet of grass around the family yurt, spreading them by hand to dry and be collected for fuel (and offering a lesson for people who can’t pick up after their poodles).
Yama also lives with pain, of various sorts: Under Chinese rule, the family is limited to three children; she’s lost two, and has one who seems to be flourishing. But a child born out of wedlock to her husband’s girlfriend counts against her total. In addition, she takes medication for heart disease (the filmmakers think it’s a form of hepatitis).
With no narration and virtually no music save for what Locho plays on an antediluvian cassette player, “Summer Pasture” is as spare as the life it portrays. The filmmakers — Americans True and Walker and their Tibetan co-director, Tsering Peplo, who introduced them to the nomads — have captured a culture in transition. The collection and sale of the so-called “caterpillar fungus” used in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicines is changing the life of the nomads, giving them, for the first time, a cash crop. Of course, something that can be stolen will be, and caterpillar fungi are easier to steal than yaks, so one can see where this is all going (even though, because of the film’s lack of text or narration, nothing really gets explained in depth). In the subjects, too, one can see a leaning toward modernity, in their personalities and attitudes. If no one on the mountain has an iPad in 20 years, it will only be because no one can read.
Production values are good, especially Walker’s shooting under trying circumstances.