review by Lang Thompson
Director: Ulrike Koch
Writer: Ulrike Koch
Cinematographer: Pio Corradi
After two hours of watching men and yaks trudge across frozen wastelands on their way to harvest salt, the viewer of Saltmen of Tibet is confronted with an on-screen written plea to preserve these nomads' way of life. It's hard not to wonder why. It's not just that this looks like a rough, unforgiving existence that most of us would rather not share but mainly because the film doesn't earn the right to speak to this aspect of its subject. Politics is almost non-existant through most of the film which instead focuses on aspects of daily life and a string of events concerning salt. As information, Saltmen is opaque to the point of dishonesty; as art, it relies on a familiar pictoral sense that never moves beyond the usual traveller's views.
Admittedly, few travellers ever see this place but that perhaps only makes the film more irritating. Windswept plains seem to be a constant attraction for Koch, especially if there are a few animals or people in the distance. Her eye in this sense is little different from countless nature documentaries, never approaching the aesthetic sensibilities of, say, Cooper and Schoedsack's Grass, Herzog's Fata Morgana, James Benning's Him and Me or even such a Hollywood film (although admittedly an anomalous Hollywood film) like The Thin Red Line. There's even an unwelcome (or at least not utilized) roughness to the image quality that initially seemed like a by-product of the much vaunted difficult shooting conditions, though I later found out that Saltmen was shot with digital video. Perhaps that was more efficient in such circumstances but Koch and cinematographer Corradi worked as if this produced the same effects as film, which is clearly not true.
Even the pace of editing serves this too-familiar approach. Shots are held just long enough to make their point, a beat more for art's sake and then we're on to something else. Clearly a faster pace would be "untrue" to the subject (possibly not an accurate statement but you could hear the complaints of a quickly edited film being "MTV inspired" and then dismissed) but there's also none of the sense of really observing or being captivated by a landscape that you can find in the films listed above.
In one sequence, Koch shows one of the men making a clay figure of a yak intercutting this with shots of an actual animal. I suppose this is meant as some form of comment on the artistic process or on the peoples' relation to their animals but I'm still not entirely sure. By that point, we know that these people are intimately familiar with their yaks so this is too obvious to require Koch's underlining, and if she's telling us that artists simply shape their reproductions of observed reality then we've received a key insight into the failure of Saltmen of Tibet.
Since apart from any bland artistic approach, the film tells us very little about the Saltmen. Their ancient, rugged way of life (the one we need to preserve, remember?) doesn't prevent them from wearing glasses or tennis shoes. One shot shows a train passing by and their competitors in the salt harvesting business use pickup trucks, leaving us to wonder if the Saltmen use other modern conveniences but Koch just happened to omit this or if they would like to but can't afford it or if they have some Amish-like disdain for things they would rather not understand. The Saltmen complain about low salt prices but Koch doesn't tell us why prices are low or whether the Saltmen have other income or how they manage to get food and supplies. Is harvesting salt with pickups a bad thing? From what's shown in the film, that would seem to do no damage to the lake. How limited a resource is the salt? Where does it come from? Is it only in that one lake? If they have a special salt language that women and outsiders can never hear, how was Koch able to film it? What is the food shown and how is it preserved? What kind of relations do the Saltmen have with other groups or with the government? What religion do they practice? Is the epic song we hear phenomenally dull or am I just a jaded Westerner?
The film provides glimpses of the Saltmen's life for two hours without ever really telling us much about the Saltmen. Perhaps Koch was so familiar with them that she simply forgot to include the connections or background info. In any case, only viewers with that information are likely to get much from Saltmen of Tibet.
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