INTERVIEW: 15 Years in Tibet; Eric Valli's Trip Through "Himalaya"
by Suzanne Ely
(indieWIRE/ 06.22.01) -- In many ways, Eric Valli has been researching his feature film debut, "Himalaya," for almost twenty years. An acclaimed photographer, whose work has been published in National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian and Life, Valli has created a universal tale of love, life, betrayal and death -- set against the unforgiving nature of the Northeastern Dolpo region in Nepal. Valli has lived in the Dolpo region for nearly two decades, and Valli's two best friends were the inspiration for the film's main characters, Tinle and Norbou. Valli has also written numerous books about his adopted country. And in 1992, he was awarded the Gurka Dakshin Baho from the King of Nepal, in honor of Valli's body of work about Nepal.
Variously described as a Western, a love story and an adventure tale, "Himalaya" is about a chieftain, Tinle, whose son dies during a yak caravan in the Himalayas. Proud and driven by conviction, Tinle insists he lead the caravan until his young grandson is old enough to inherit the duties of the time-honored tradition. A challenge ensues, between a rebellious young villager and the elder. What follows is a struggle against nature, pride and ego.
Valli is a romantic adventurer, a man who likens his affinity for Nepal to that of an epic love affair. Valli began traveling when he was 18 years old in order to find out about human differences. Now he's made a film essentially about their similarities. Visually, "Himalaya" is intoxicating, but deeper is a story so universal that audiences in Europe and Asia have already embraced the film. And this year in the United States, "Himalaya" was an Academy Award nominee for best foreign film, the first Nepalese entry to be considered for an Oscar. "Himalaya" opens in New York on June 22.
indieWIRE: How did your extensive photographic background contribute to your decision to tell this story? Visually, this film is truly beautiful. Did your background give you an edge on documenting this region?
Eric Valli: Sure, working as a photographer for 18 years now has been great teaching for me. People say, "Eric, we see so many of your pictures in the film; we see your style." Sure, but it's my first feature film. I had a big meeting with the two directors of photography (Eric Guichard and Jean-Paul Meurisse) and we looked at all of my pictures. And we said that for certain scenes I wanted certain light, and for this other scene I want certain framing, very often similar to my pictures. But it wasn't my work to be behind the camera; it was to be director. I had total trust with the two D.O.P.s, who did a fantastic job. So I let them be free, very often sticking an eye in the viewfinder, but mainly focusing on the biggest challenge of this film, which was acting. Because these people not only have never seen a movie camera in their life, but most of these people have never even seen a film in their life. What was acting for them? I speak their language. I had spent two years with them before, so I knew these people and I built up a fantastic relationship with them. But I was asking them to do things that they had never thought about. It's within their Tibetan tradition to make a testimony of their history. When an important person dies in their community, you write a biography. So, somehow they understood the process of it. We weren't using a pen on paper anymore. We were using a camera, a tape recorder and a crew. But it was the same thing -- we were making a testimony of their own life -- and this they understood very well. But they didn't understand what was acting.
iW: Why did you use non-professional actors?
Valli: I could have found actors, but I never would have found the faces, the inner power, the knowledge. It would have somehow been fake. And with Jacques Perrin -- a great producer, an adventurer and a visionary guy, who produced "Z," "Black and White in Color" and won two Academy Awards -- we decided together, in the beginning, that we wanted to do something authentic. The only way to make it authentic was to deal with real people in real places. It took nine months to shoot in the highest inhabited place on earth!
iW: How did producer Jacques Perrin become involved?
Valli: We met through friends and I met him when I published a big article on these caravans in National Geographic in 1993. I had made a documentary called "Shadow Hunters" (1990), which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1992. We had in our minds the idea to make a great 35mm documentary. I told him about my life up there, and he said, "Eric, you have such an incredible knowledge of this place, and the life of these people is so epic." We decided to make a feature, which was the best way, Jacques Perrin thought, to recreate reality. And he was right.
iW: What led you to Nepal, and why did you stay so long?
Valli: Oh, it's a great love story! Why such a woman? Why such a man? It's always difficult to explain. I started to travel when I was very young and I got hooked to this life, to this life of a nomad; and learning so much, being very curious and learning so many ways of life. I was in search in our differences. And now I've made this film, which is about our similarities. I spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, the Middle East, India and then I discovered Nepal and I fell in love. Basically that's it; it was very simple.
iW: Did you feel more compelled to entertain or to enlighten the West about this region?
Valli: I think it's very important that the film entertains you. But I think it has to be more. There are so many films that you come out of and you're just saying, "Oh, wow, what did I see?" You forget what you see. You are entertained or kind of bombarded with the music, with incredible images and with special effects. You come out of it and it's like if you ate something, yet you are still hungry. It doesn't fill you. I think making a film is a huge amount of energy and money and time. And I think a film has to be entertaining first, but it has to be much more than that too. I like a film to make me think, to make me learn things which I don't know and to make me feel. A film is a way to communicate emotion. It's not only information, but emotion also. I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy that way.
iW: What message are you trying to convey through the film?
Valli: There are some great lessons, like when Tinle asks his son, "Why did you come with me?" He says, "One day my teacher (lama) told me, "Whenever there are two trails open in front of you, always choose the hardest one; the one which will squeeze the best out of you." This sentence was told to me about 12 or 13 years ago, and when it was told to me by this old man in a cave, I just thought, what is the meaning of life if you don't give it your best? What is the meaning of life if you don't realize your dreams; if you don't try? It's a film about power, courage and tolerance.
iW: In the beginning of the film, Lhakpa (Tinle's son) is carried back home dead, and near the end of the film, Karma carries Tinle safely back to camp? Is this relevant to the message by coming full circle?
Valli: You are the first one who made me think about this. I never thought about the parallel between the two. I guess it does come full circle. We went to shoot this film without any ending. We had eight different endings and we didn't know which one it was going to be when we started to shoot the film. And it was the 9th different ending that came to our mind, and it came to us so naturally. There was no other possible ending to this film, then this one -- the one that we shot. The eight other endings were fake.
iW: I imagine there were many parallels between your struggle to film in nature's elements and the caravan's struggle to survive against nature?
Valli: It is exactly the same. When you see the snowstorm, it is a real snowstorm. It was in front of the camera and behind the camera. For nine months, we were on the trail of the real caravan. What you see on the screen is what we also experienced as filmmakers. This film is an adventure film, but at the same time it is a document. This is the only film made on Tibetan culture. I'm not talking about Scorsese's "Kundun," or Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Seven Years in Tibet," about a Westerner discovering Tibet.
iW: Tell about your friend, Tenzing Norbou, who was inspiration for the character Norbou.
Valli: The two main characters are my two best friends, both from the monastery. My one friend is a great artist and lama. And even though I speak their language, I know how to load their yaks, I have spent three years of my life out there, I am still an outsider. And when I saw this great artist, I just thought, hey, this is a way for me to make an insider testimony. And I asked him and his father, "Would you like to travel with me? And instead of painting Gods and demons, would you paint your people?" So he left his monastery for the first time and he came with me and he discovered life. And when I met Thinlen almost 18 or 20 years ago, he is exactly as the character Tinle is: he's the chief of his village, he's a very charismatic guy. In real life Thinlen's brother was murdered in a feud with another family, but in the film, it was his brother who falls from the cliff. So it is based on real, epic events; real characters. And I think that's what gives a lot of power to this film. Because these people -- Norbou is a real lama, Thinlen is a real chief and Karma is a real cowboy. Every single thing these people do is real. I didn't have to teach them. It came out; they sweated it out.
iW: You and Thinlen have wanted to make a film together for a long time; almost 15 years. How much input did Thinlen have?
Valli: Without Thinlen, there would be no film. "Himalaya" is Thinlen's story; he inspired the story. Thinlen is the chief of this area of Dolpo, and he pulled everybody together. Our friendship was key. No Thinlen, no film.