Thursday, July 29, 2010

DocuWeeks ’10: Summer Pasture

Tibet is changing, which is exactly what China wants. For instance, it has become increasingly difficult for Tibetans not fluent in Chinese to conduct business transactions. Such are the challenges facing a young nomadic family in Tibet’s eastern Kham region presented in Summer Pastures (trailer here), an intimate new documentary from Lynn True and Nelson Walker (with co-director Tsering Perlo) that screens during the first week of New York DocuWeeks starting tomorrow.

In many ways, Locho and Yama are much like any other parents you would find anywhere else on Earth. Their greatest hope is for their daughter to have greater opportunities in her life than have been available for them. However, their daily chores are far removed from those western audiences will be familiar with, including the daily spreading and drying of manure for fuel that starts Yama’s daily routine. It is a hardscrabble life, but it is what they have always known.

Unfortunately, it is not clear the nomads’ way of life will be sustainable much longer. Inflation constantly drives up the price of their supplies, while they seem to have less to show for their labors. Adding further uncertainty, Yama suffers from a persistent heart ailment, yet she keeps working like an ox, in contrast to Locho, who often seems like an overgrown kid herding their livestock. Still, they seem to have a comfortable, easy-going relationship filled with laughter, until the nomads a rough patch, again not uncommon to couples around the world.

Even in their remote corner of Tibet, Locho and Yama feel the impact of great macro forces. However, True and Walker focus their sites on their deeply personal family drama. Conveying a strong sense of their personalities and relationship dynamics, Pasture will have most viewers rooting for this family as the film unfolds.

In some ways, Pasture bears comparison to Ilsa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass. Both documentaries use a livestock drive as the framework for a meditation on the potential end of a way of life. Like Sweetgrass, Pasture forgoes filmmaker commentary, instead capturing the nomads’ lives unfiltered, in a style not incompatible with that of Digital Generation Chinese independent filmmakers.

Though it requires some patience, it is certainly rewarding to meet Yama and Locho. Many western observers care about events in Tibet for a myriad of legitimate political, religious, and philosophic reasons. Still, it is the people themselves who should come foremost in such considerations. Indeed, Pasture captures their spirit and resiliency quite it vividly. It begins a one week run at the IFC Center tomorrow (7/30) as part of New York DocuWeeks.