Gary MacLennan g.maclennan at SPAMqut.edu.au
Tue Dec 26 00:42:44 MST 2000

Eric Valli's 1999 film is set in Nepal.  It tells the story of a village
community that needs to trade salt for grain.  The getting and the trading
of salt are dangerous enterprises.  Thus the village chief, Tinle loses his
eldest son in the acquisition of salt.  He blames Korma who has emerged as
the future leader of the village.  Tinle is however determined that the
chiefdom will pass to his grandson.  The tension between Tinle and Korma is
complicated by the fact that his daughter in law an son both like Lorma.

The latter leads a revolt against Tinle's leadership and sets out on the
trek to deliver the salt to the fertile plains below.  He does so in
defiance of the religious leaders of the village whose task it is to say
when the caravan must go.  Tinle and the older men of the village obey the
will of the gods and wait for the prescribed date.  They then set off after
Korma.  the film deals with the journey and what happens when the two
groups meet.

this then is apparently a simple film of tension between the old and the
new.  Korma is head strung and wants to defy the gods and authority.  Tinle
will not let go of the leadership.  He resents Korma but he is respectful
of the gods.

A sideline concerns Tinle's other son who was sent to the monastery at the
age of nine.  He has become a priest-artist and spends his days painting
murals.  His father goes to the monastery and begs his son to return to
help him lead the expedition.  The priest eventually does agree to go.  But
his hands are soft and he does not know even how to tie the salt on the
yaks.  During one crisis he also has to be rescued by the daughter in law.

However as always with a good work of art there is a good deal churning
beneath the surface in this film. To begin with how does one classify
it?  Its settings are very authentic.  Non-actors are used with the
exception of the daughter-on-law.  Extra authenticity is assured by seeing
that the actors do not wash.  Everyone, apart from the priest, is extremely

The closest in genre to this film, is in my opinion the work of the
"documentary" film maker Robert Flaherty.  His subject matter was similarly
pre capitalist or premodern societies.  He faked story lines and situations
to get his vision across.  Valli seems to do likewise.

Is it then a simple matter of the romanticisation of the struggle of man
against nature? Certainly the brilliantly spectacular cinematography would
create that impression.  But again there is more at stake. The central
drama is nothing less than that of Freud's Totem and Taboo.  The old chief
must give way.  He must shed his stubborn hatred of his young rival and he
must accept his own finality.  The old king must die so the new king might
live. He must also let the new king have the woman - the daughter in law.

The lesson that the old chief has to pass on to Korma is that one must
respect the gods.  In an interesting moment, Tinle has to find out what is
the best thing to do.  Should they rest the flocks in the high meadow or
head on across the mountains?  He puts four pieces of salt in a fire and
tell us that silence means a storm is coming.  If the salt speaks then they
have nothing to fear and can rest.  The salt is silent and so Tinle gathers
the tribe and they head off.  Korma stubbornly refuses to move because the
skies are blue.  The subsequent storm teaches him humility and shows that
old Tinle knows a trick or two.

What is one to make of this?  Tinle's hocus-pocus divinations are endorsed
- skepticism is overthrown.  What I wonder would the Bhaskar of From East
to West say here?  Moreover I found myself asking what would I have
done?  I would of course have headed off with Tinle not because the salt
was silent, but because it such a situation the smarter thing to do is to
assume the worst.

There is another intriguing moment in the film which I wish to comment
on.  When the priest- son reaches his father's village, the old men line up
for a blessing. He walks down the line placing his hand on their head.  I
found this to be a touching moment. I read this as the dispensation of
grace.  I was also reminded forcibly about an occasion over 40 years ago
when I was going on a school expedition with one of the local priests.  We
came to a farm and stopped to park the car before heading up to the
mountain.  The owner of the farm came out and was quite abrasive to the
priest.  Someone then must have told him who the visitor was because he
came out and abjectly apologised saying that he did not know that he was in
fact a priest.  I still recall my reaction at the time.  I was enraged at
the farmer humiliating himself as he stood cap in hand and begged
forgiveness.  I hated that grovelling to the clergy. Yet now over forty
years later, I see a group of peasants line up to be blessed and I smile
approvingly. Perhaps it was because the priest was kind of cute! Umm!

So Valli's film offers plenty of food for thought.  It represents a
conventional moment in that it looks approvingly from a modern perspective
at a pre-modern society. Its strength lie in that it has a very clearly
Romantic version of this community.  In aesthetic terms this affords the
film a unity of vision. Yet it also displays all the weaknesses of
romanticism. Thus there is no real interest in the social structure.  Why
did Tinle send his son to the monastery?  Presumably to curry favour with
the local feudal lords/priests. Little is made of course of the life of
security of the priests compared to that of the peasants.  The sheer
injustice of this situation is not commented on. Moreover the film has no
solution to offer for the peasantry.  There is now way out of their life of
grim necessity.  The realm of freedom seems far off. The only message for
the peasants is that they must trust in the gods, and continue giving a
good share of their hard earned surplus to the priests.

The representative of the latter, Tinle's son, may not be able to tie on a
bag of salt or know how to herd a yak, but he is the source of wisdom that
teaches the old man to let go and give way to his young rival.  Moreover at
the end we set the priest and artist has recorded in a monastery mural the
whole adventure of his father's last trip through the
mountains.  Intellectuals are not entirely useless after all; a comforting
thought for an academic given to mystical speculation.



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