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Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2000

In perilous pursuit of reality


One of the hottest tickets to be had last weekend at the Tokyo International Film Festival was for director Eric Valli's "Caravan," a stunningly shot tale of perilous mountain journeys set in the remotest regions of the Himalayas. Valli took a small crew to the Dolpo region -- on the border of Nepal and Tibet -- and embarked on a 32-week trek over 1,400 km, traversing passes as high as 5,000 meters, amid real-life blizzards and avalanches, in order to trace the steps of centuries of trading caravans.

Filmmaker Eric Valli

In an interview Sunday, Valli admitted that he knew it would be a difficult shoot. "But I knew it was the only way to bring this incredible atmosphere to the screen," he said. "And audiences are touched by this because it was clearly shot there, with those people, in the conditions of the mountains."

The film is rich with detail, perfectly chosen locations and an intimate feel for the rhythms and rituals of mountain life, and this is precisely because Valli has immersed himself deeply in the culture. A Frenchman who describes himself as a "total nomad," Valli laughed while explaining how he decided to go to Nepal for a week and ended up staying 20 years.

"It was love at first sight," he said. "I went to Nepal for the mountains, because I'm a climber, and then I stayed for the people who live at the foot of the mountains. I became totally fascinated by their lives.

"I like these kind of people, like Tinle, like Karma. Because your life there is always on the edge; it's not life -- it's survival. Every day is a challenge. And you have to be able to trust your neighbor."

The tale of "Caravan" is fictional, but archetypal: Village elder Tinle is enraged when his eldest son dies in an accident, and holds the caravan's new leader, Karma, responsible. Another caravan is due to set out before winter, but Tinle refuses to let Karma lead it. Karma sets out anyway, well before the shaman's auspicious date. Tinle, determined to assert his authority, enlists his second son Norbu, a Buddhist monk, and sets out at a furious pace to overtake Karma's caravan, choosing some dangerously precipitous shortcuts.

For Valli, "Caravan" is not just his baby, but an intensely collaborative effort with the Dolpo people he was filming. "It was a common project," said Valli. "I didn't take a helicopter, and fly in and out. I went up there, and we made a film together, and I think you can feel it on the screen."

Valli used no professional actors in the film, relying on local friends, many of whom hadn't even seen a film. The script Valli wrote came out real events in their lives, "which really are epic adventures."

"I just wanted to get as close as possible to the reality of the risks they face, and not include anything that felt unnatural. I did rehearse them, but I wasn't directing them so much as listening to what they had to say, letting them express their emotions in their own way."

Although based on real events, Valli, a noted documentary filmmaker and photographer, saw the need to work in fiction for "Caravan": "If you really want to capture reality, to get all the things you've lived and experienced and witnessed, sometimes it's necessary to reconstruct it with a fictional approach.

"I didn't want to do a documentary," Valli insisted. "But I had in front of me an incredible culture, like what Tibet was before the Chinese invasion, and it has been protected from the tourist invasion because it's so far -- you have to walk three weeks to get up there. So it's not a documentary, but it's a document, and at the same time, it's a piece of entertainment. I just wanted to show as much as I could of their incredible tradition without being boring. But always being true to their reality."

The film depicts the strong connection between ritual and daily life in a world where nature is still the primary force. "Before you do anything, you have to have the permission of the gods," Valli said about the Dolpo. "We made a ceremony, with a shaman, each time before shooting. And to have the snowstorm arrive, we had a ceremony for that too." Valli conceded that small changes are occurring ("you see some Chinese boots and down jackets and things like that"), but pointed out that the caravans still go, the same as 1,000 years ago. "When this film comes out in November, the caravan will be going down again."

For Valli, a cabinetmaker-turned-self-taught-filmmaker, "Caravan" is the culmination of a dream he's had for about 15 years, and he had to overcome many challenges, both technically and physically, to make it happen. His scariest moment came when dodging falling rocks while hanging off a cliff face. You certainly won't miss the dramatic shot where a stone nearly smashes into his camera lens.

Despite the tough shoot, the director maintained a philosophical outlook: "There's a crucial line in the film where the lama Norbu says 'When two paths appear before you, choose the more difficult one. That's the one that will draw forth your best aspects.' This film was for me a chance to talk about courage. If you are not courageous, you cannot survive up there."

"Caravan" opens Nov. 25 at Cinema Rise, Shibuya. TV Asahi (Channel 10) will broadcast "Caravan in Nepal," a documentary including location interviews with the cast, 9:55 a.m. Nov. 11.


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