[15 August 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“It’s not good to do nothing. You should always be busy.” And so Yama is. A Tibetan nomad, she’s spending yet another summer in Dzachukha, Sichuan Province, China. Here she and her husband, Locho, as well as her two sisters and their husbands, keep their herds of yaks and horses fed on fresh grass, until the season changes and they head to less forbidding land for winter.
Yama doesn’t need to seek work, as she reveals throughout the remarkable documentary, Summer Pasture—made by Lynn True, Nelson Walker, and Tsering Perlo, and premiering at Maysles Cinema 15 August. (The film opens 19 August at DC’s West End Theater.) Milking the yaks, churning butter and making cheese, preparing meals, doing laundry, and nursing her infant daughter, she takes a few moments to reflect on her lot for the benefit of the filmmakers. ” Though she once though herding was difficult, now she knows that housework is harder. “You work the whole day and don’t see much result,” she says. “A herder just has to return with the same number of animals and the day’s a success.”
Locho does just that, for the most part. But as he looks after his herd, he worries occasionally that his family might be left behind. Not only do they confront the usual harsh weather and shifting seasons, but also a troubled local economy (the film was shot in 2007), which threatens their way of life. As the film notes, nomads have lived in the area for 4,000 years, but now, more and more are moving to towns, up to 90% each year. Locho supplements their income by cultivating the highly profitable caterpillar fungus, but as he places his precious stash in a blue case, inside a trunk padlocked and hidden in their tent, he knows too that their time on the plain is limited.
When the baby turns six, he asserts, they will move to town, so she can attend school. He has no intention of letting her miss the education he wanted as a child, but was denied by a grandmother who worried that he’d only learn “bad things” in town. Today, he feels the cost of that decision: “Not literate, not educated, not Chinese,” he observes as you watch him make his way through town on a shopping trip, “It’s a big disadvantage.” The film hints at how confusing the world beyond the herd can be. Cars, bikes, and a man in a red sport jacket cross in front of the frame as the traditionally clothed Locho and his pack animal appear in the background. Vendors glance at the camera as he haggles over the prices of flour and rice, and when he arrives home, he faces another complication, as Yama regards the new shoes he brings her with skepticism. “If they fit, they’re nice,” she says.
At this point, Locho looks directly at the camera, blinks hard, and smiles awkwardly. In this and other moments, the documentary intimates not only nuances of the couple’s relationship, but also of their response to the filmmaking process. Sometimes this awareness has to do with possible audiences. When he’s helping with dinner, Locho points out, “I washed my hands. Otherwise, if a Chinese saw me doing this, they might get annoyed”; Yama adds, “Maybe they’d think, ‘Why aren’t they using utensils?’”
And sometimes this awareness has to do with their own stories, how they’re speaking to one another via the film. As they narrate their lives and share their thoughts, they seem simultaneously open and self-aware, easily confessional and happily performative, and sometimes, wary. “When we first became lovers,” Locho begins, “The karma connected us, it was this thing called karma. It’s strange, we became completely inseparable.” When he asks her to join in the remembering of how they first met, she says she doesn’t know, and besides, “I need to make this butter.”
As Locho and Yama speak in separate interviews, you come to see that their early days were less ideal than he’s recalling, that they were shaped by infidelity and tragedy. As you come to see that Yama’s focus on her daily chores now emerges from a complex emotional background, you see the relationship in increasingly complex terms. “She is the generator here,” Locho notes while Yama refuses his offer of a cup of tea. “If she doesn’t work, no work gets done.” His observation is layered by several references to Yama’s illness, for which she takes medicines prescribed by doctors and picked up in town by Locho. He doesn’t have to wonder out loud what he’d do without her; you can see his eyes tear up as he sits on the doctor’s couch.
As the film shows the couple’s separate versions of their lives together, you see again and again their physical hardships: long shots of the tent and the herd, of Yama milking and humming, of Locho with his brother, surveying their livestock. A merchant might lose money in a trade, Locho says, “But to work as a nomad is 100% sure. The livestock is our whole life’s savings.” But he also knows the future can’t be known. “By the time my daughter is old enough to work,” he says, “I don’t think nomads will be the same as now. Everything is being modernized now. Paved roads and electricity shall connect every valley. Phone service shall reach every hill. Personally, I think if you aren’t literate, it’s a huge mistake.”
Yama is less convinced of the effects of such changes. “I think it will be the same as now,” she says as the camera watches her make her way across a snowy landscape, toting the yak dung that will serve as fuel. She’s at work again. “Every day is the same. There’s no time to hold your hands in your lap.”