Heaven and Earth, in Mounds of Salt
Amazing record of Tibet nomads
Bob Graham, Chronicle Staff Critic
San Francisco Cronicles Friday, September 25, 1998
I hope no reader of this newspaper will take it as a slight if I point out that there are people on this earth to whom what passes for ``the news'' is of absolutely no consequence whatsoever.
Consider the band of nomads depicted in the documentary ``The Saltmen of Tibet.'' They might as well be on Mars. The ordinary events of their isolated daily life take on epic proportions in this astonishing and moving documentary.
The course of their lives is as majestic, slow-moving and difficult to change as that of the Titanic, and may meet a similar fate.
The closest thing to ``news'' for these Tibetan herdsmen is the price for which they can sell salt. Their annual life cycle revolves around the spring expedition to a salt lake, where they gather the commodity and pack it back in a yak caravan.
In a very long shot, after the caravan makes its methodical progress all the way across the screen, it is a shock to see a truck, which will one day replace the nomads, roll up.
German filmmaker Ulrike Koch is a sinologist (her previous film dealt with Chinese medicine) who made this documentary on digital video with a small crew in northern Tibet. The video lacks the resolution of film and shows halo effects from time to time, but the results seem all the more spectacular for the difficulty that went into obtaining them.
Events in the lives of these nomads, like their yaks, move very deliberately. Much is ritualized and made sacred. There is role playing and reliance upon tradition.
During the course of ``The Saltmen of Tibet,'' we see them consult a horoscope before the expedition begins (``Is Monday a neutral day?''); put on a horse race with their stumpy, sturdy animals; churn butter; eat dried meat; put up a tent; take down the tent; and tell each other legends, the point of at least one of which seems to be its pointlessness.
The slow progress of the yaks is even slower when they must plod through showers of wet snow. One of the animals gets sick, and the decision to let it die becomes a momentous one for a people who hold all life sacred.
They build shrines of rocks, colorful banners and ropes, and make burnt offerings.
The sounds we hear are a woman singing a tribal legend (``We are at the center of the world''), the men chanting, bells and the deep foghorn blasts of resonant instruments.
The wind is a constant presence, and so are the looming, snow- covered peaks. In one astonishing shot, after the caravan has reached the salt lake, the orderly piles of salt there appear the same as the snowy peaks seen from the air. It is a microcosm of the greater world around them, and we are free to imagine it stretching out to infinity.
The saltmen are a fraternity, and there are initiation rites. Women are forbidden from going because once ``one took too much salt and made the lake angry.'' The men play assigned roles: ``mother,'' ``father'' and ``novice,'' and we gather that there must always be a novice to reinforce the idea of seeing familiar things as if for the first time.
The endless cycle of the salt expedition might seem Sisyphean if the repetitious activity were not transformed into the sacred. The prayer to the goddess of the lake is very moving. ``We are deeply grateful to the mother of the salt lake for helping us to live,'' it goes, and the nomads pray to return ``in good company.''
As the film progresses, the individual personalities of the nomads emerge. The Lord of the Animals, or herdsman, says he is no good at ``smooth talking'' or business. The caravan comes across an old friend. ``You look younger every year,'' he tells one of the nomads. Another man binds his hair around his head -- there seems to be about six feet of it.
There are strict rules for the raking up and bagging of the salt, and outsiders are not permitted to know. ``We keep the salt language absolutely secret,'' one says, and at that point the subtitles go into indecipherable Tibetan characters, which is probably not intended as a joke but is about as close to one as this film gets.