With Himalaya, National Geographic Photographer Moves to Big Screen

David Braun
National Geographic News
June 22, 2001

After a lifetime of telling stories through images and documentaries, National Geographic photographer Eric Valli has turned to feature filmmaking as a way to reach a wider audience.

His first movie, Himalaya, about a disappearing mountain culture in remote Nepal, was nominated for an Oscar and has been playing to enthusiastic audiences worldwide.

The first Nepali-language film to be nominated for an Academy Award, Himalaya has already been seen by millions of people in Europe, Asia, and Australia, where it has competed successfully against box office rivals such as The Perfect Storm. It has been playing to full houses in Nepal for two years.

Himalaya premiered recently in the United States and is now showing on the East Coast. It opens in New York on Friday.

Himalaya is both a documentary and a dramatic story based on the real-life adventures of the Dolpo-pa, the people who live in the remote and forbidden Dolpo region of northwest Nepal. The Dolpo-pa are Nepalese but have Tibetan cultural traditions.

The Dolpo region is closed to tourists, and only those with expert knowledge and an ability to speak the language are permitted by the Nepalese government to enter.

Several decades ago the remote region of Dolpo captured the interest of author Peter Matthiessen, who broadened awareness of its existence in his 1978 book, The Snow Leopard.

Long-Time Interest

Valli has visited and lived with the Dolpo-pa for a quarter of a century and is well acquainted with their customs. He has trekked with them several times through the Himalayas on hazardous annual yak caravans, which meander through snow-capped peaks and dizzying mountain passes. The Dolpo-pa exchange salt extracted from the high plateau for grain grown in Nepal's temperate southern lowlands.

Himalaya is the story of one such caravan journey. It centers on a generational struggle over leadership, and the tension between ancient tradition and modernity. The film uses the big-screen format to exploit the breathtaking, rugged mountain scenery to best advantage, and it showcases the extraordinary beauty of the Dolpo-pa and their culture.

Most of the cast in Himalaya are ordinary Dolpo-pa "acting" out their own lives. Because they are not professional actors, Valli refers to them as "characters."

The idea for the movie came from a Dolpo-pa friend of Valli's, who saw it as an opportunity to tell the region's story and preserve the Dolpo-pa culture on film before it disappears.

"I'm a storyteller and I want to explore as much as I can in the art of storytelling," Valli said. "It's a very natural trend from traveler to photographer to documentary maker to filmmaker. It's a very obvious road for me to take."

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