The Saltmen of Tibet opens with an Asian woman singing. We don’t know who she is and though the song is translated in subtitles, its meaning is obscure. It’s a song that seems crammed with kings and gods, strange names and places, heroic deeds. The woman appears to be in a trance. Each line of the song is as long as a slow exhalation of breath, but one that ends on a deep, emphatic phrase rather than the expected sigh, as though her voice were suddenly being channeled from some supernatural source.
The scene establishes the otherworldly tone of this documentary about a nomadic tribe of Tibetans who make an annual and arduous trip to one of various lakes in order to glean salt, which they then trade for food and other necessities. The whole enterprise is laced with intricate rituals and taboos, many whose origins are no longer known even to the saltmen.
For example, women are not allowed to go to the lakes — one woman says that they’re not even permitted to look in the direction of the lakes — though no one seems quite sure why. Perhaps this is related to certain other strictures which seem designed to keep the saltmen monkishly focused on their life-sustaining task. The various songs which accompany even the most prosaic activity — like stuffing a huge bag with salt — the prohibition against swearing or behaving unkindly toward anyone while in the vicinity of the precious lakes, and even the special "salt language" which must be spoken after a certain point in the journey is reached are things that we in the West would associate more with religion than with work. But for the saltmen there is no such division — the sacred and the mundane are merged.
Saltmen was made by German filmmaker Ulrike Koch, an expert on China who was a location scout and casting director on Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and Little Buddha. Her film is a little too long — it’s as though she had become slightly hypnotized by the beauty of the region’s desolate vistas — but it has the allure of an ancient story: simple, mysterious and with an intimation of eternity.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].