Director/cameraman Tony Miller and his crew have created a remarkable humanistic and visual documentary of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Mustang.
Mustang lies in a time-and-place warp between Tibet to the north and Nepal to the south, sealed to outsiders since the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1963, so obscure that the current Encyclopedia Britannica contains no mention of its name.
Its borders were breached last year, however, when the exiled Dalai Lama determined to send an envoy, the Lama Rinpoche, to shore up the faith of Mustang’s 7,000 isolated inhabitants.
No word of the Dalai Lama’s fate had reached Mustang during his 30-year exile; the 68-year-old, feisty Khamtruel Rinpoche had to travel six weeks on horseback to bring the welcome news of his continued strength and good health, greeted by the citizens and their elderly king with the clangor of cymbals and much dancing.
Miller’s film penetrates into the quality of life, primitive but remarkably self-sufficient at 13,000 feet above sea level.
Miller’s cameras find that faith in their absent spiritual leader’s teachings remains steadfast.
Yet there is an undertone in the script that seems to belie the upbeat visuals. “As the world discovers Mustang,” the soundtrack resonantly intones, “its fate becomes uncertain.” Little evidence exists to substantiate this warning.
The ardent “Save Mustang” tone strikes a false note, as do the potted-palm exoticism of jazzman Lyle Mays’ score and the obviously scripted dialogue ascribed to the villagers.
While Miller’s camera hunts out some expressive faces, and lingers long as one old codger hilariously acts out a snow leopard’s murderous attack on a goat, one longs now and then for broader perspectives.
But one marvelous moment seems to capture the glowing renewal of faith the visitors have brought to Mustang, and the tragedy behind its isolation as well.
On their last day in the village, Lama Rinpoche and his followers climb a nearby crag that affords a view toward Tibet, birthplace and forbidden shrine of their faith. In their sorrowing but radiant faces much is written.