Film

Summer Pasture

Yama doesn't need to seek work, as she reveals throughout the remarkable documentary, Summer Pasture.


Summer Pasture

Director: Lynn True, Nelson Walker, Tsering Perlo
Cast: Lozon Chopel (Locho), Sangchip Wangmo (Yama)
Rated: NR
Studio: Kham Film Project
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-08-15 (Maysles Cinema)
Website
Trailer

"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."

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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