Summer Pasture Dir. Lynn True, Nelson Walker & Tsering Perlo

[Kham Film Project; 2010]

Styles: documentary
Others: The Story of the Weeping Camel

To receive a nomination for the Gotham Independent Film Awards in the category “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You” is a bittersweet honor, perhaps mediated by an increased hope for theatrical distribution (last year’s winner, Ry Russo-Young’s You Won’t Miss Me is finally in theaters a year later). I hope such a fate befalls the documentary Summer Pasture, an interesting and rich portrait of nomadic life among a Tibetan yak-herding family. The film screened at MOMA and was followed by one of the more pleasant and intelligent Q&As I’ve witnessed, where directors Lynn True and Nelson Walker shared their own story of embedding in the Tibetan grasslands for three months, living off butter tea and burning yak dung for fuel while digitally capturing the rhythms of a culture more than 4,000 years old.

The story opens in the early hours of dawn as young wife Yama begins her day. Small but strong, we watch her sink her hands into piles of warm yak dung to collect and spread around the grassy fields. Somewhat indifferent to the camera, she remains in almost constant motion. The nomad women are responsible for keeping the home, which means everything from the typical cooking and washing to collecting fuel and milking the yaks. Yama treats these tasks with dutiful seriousness, and though always at work she sometimes allows stories to slip through. Her husband Locho in turn welcomes the attention, keeping up a colorful and often humorous stream of chatter as he tends to his own duties and to the herd. Locho is sweet but somewhat of a dandy, always a few shuffling steps behind the industrious Yama, a fact not lost on his wife. Her sharp orders to pick up the pace and help around the house are quite funny. For a moment, we forget that they are nomads living at 15,000 feet in a tent thatched of yak fur — wives nag their husbands in a universal language.

The couple also has a chubby, adorable baby girl, as yet unnamed by the local lama, whom Locho dotes on. Yama’s wary distance from her daughter seems puzzling at first, but is later illuminated by her moving story of the deaths of her two previous infants. By Chinese law, the nomads are allowed only three children per family, a fact that Locho laments in recalling the robust nomad lineage of generations past. Complicating matters is an early dalliance that left Locho with another child out of wedlock. Yama also suffered a difficult pregnancy, the result in part of a hepatitis infection, for which she is medicated though still suffering occasional bouts of pain. Despite these strains, the couple has a warm and loving connection that comes through in the easy banter and teasing laughter they share.

The filmmakers were wise to choose the couple, but in truth their meeting was fortuitous — Locho is the cousin of their Tibetan guide Tsering Perlo. A local filmmaker himself, co-director Perlo conducts the interviews, though much of the on-camera conversations are unscripted and unprompted, and we only occasionally hear his voice from behind the lens. For the most part, the filmmakers achieved their goal of making an observational documentary. In fact, until their footage was translated much later, they couldn’t even decipher the nomadic dialect of their subjects, a language barrier they felt helped them stay invisible during production. Still, a strong hand is felt in Walker’s confident camerawork, which shows off the lush landscapes and colors of the nomad’s world, complemented by brisk editing and a rich sound mix.

This brings me to an unusual aspect of Summer Pasture, that it is both an engaging picture of Tibetan culture and yet an almost entirely apolitical film. There is scant mention of the harsh Chinese dominance of Tibet, a fact questioned by some of the MOMA audience. The filmmakers have taken an anthropological approach, preferring to capture a receding way of life rather than chase after the story of exile. The film does trace the issue of nomadic resettlement in town, a priority for the Chinese government that pushes the concept of development under an agenda of enrolling Tibetans in Chinese-language schools. Locho and many of his nomadic neighbors are scornful of resettlement, defending the tradition and freedom of their subsistence culture, but must periodically journey to town to trade and buy supplies and medicine. After the quiet and beauty of the grassland slopes the honking, dirty streets are a disappointing assault. I preferred the peaceful scenes of yaks lowing in the dusk and rain dripping through tarps. This is not a film about modernization, it is about the quotidian rhythms of life elevated to a meditative state.

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