Valli was smitten with filmmaking when he was commissioned by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud to shoot Himayalan footage for the feature film Seven Years in Tibet.
"One day Annaud told me, 'You were an image catcher and now you are an image maker. You make your image, you don't catch it anymore like a National Geographic photographer. You make it.' "
Valli said that as a photographer and documentary filmmaker, he had become frustrated at not being able to convey the emotional depth of the subjects he was shooting. "As a documentary filmmaker or a National Geographic photographer, I could grab things, but not everything. I couldn't recreate the emotion I witnessed or felt. With filmmaking, I can dive into the emotion as much as I want to. It makes a big difference for me, the filmmaker, as well as the viewer."
The story of Himalaya takes place in one of the most remote places on Earth, a rugged region at the top of the world that is beset with avalanches and below-freezing weather. "We had to walk for three weeks and cross three passes, two of them at more than 15,000 feet," Valli said. "How many places like that are left in the world?"
Getting the crew and equipment into the remote mountains required a herd of yaks and more than 200 porters. Severe weather frequently disrupted the film shooting.
"The ordinary lives of the Dolpo-pa are real adventure," Valli said. "And it's a way of life that has not changed in hundreds of years, although it is beginning to do so now.
"They are the Last of the Mohicans of our times, the last of this particular culture of the Himalayas. Making this film was like being born 150 years ago and making a film about Chief Seattle in the last of the old American West. That's how remarkable this is."
Valli said he allowed his characters to express themselves as they wanted to in the film. "In order to present the culture faithfully, we had to shoot the film in the heart of the environment where the characters live and breathe," he said.
The action occurs during the snowy season, when yak caravans, laden with salt, traditionally cross the Himalayas and travel down to the plains.
"I had to be as transparent as possible and let the force and richness of the characters' lives come forward," Valli said. "I was telling their story and history. They were the masters; I was the student."
Valli is tight-lipped about what compelling story he plans to tell next. "I am going to do some more documentaries, but feature films appeal to a much bigger audience and so I will do more of those," he said. "I can't tell you what I am going to do next, except to say that it will be something I've never done before."
Eric Valli has shot two award-winning documentaries on cultural subjects, including The Shadow Hunters, which was nominated in 1992 for an Oscar. He has also produced numerous books and articles on Nepal's native societies and traditions, including several for the National Geographic Society.
Himalaya earned an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film in 2000 and received two Cesar awards, the French movie industry's equivalent of the Oscars.
The film is showing in the United States with English subtitles.
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