It takes talent — or maybe something else entirely — to make a subject like "The Saltmen of Tibet" boring.
Yet that's exactly what German documentary filmmaker Ulrike Koch has done with her second feature-length effort. She has taken a fascinating premise and treated it in the driest, most straightforward fashion possible.
In the process, this 110-minute movie about a three-month-long journey by the title characters seems like it takes three months on the screen. And that's a pity because it's a grueling spiritual odyssey that is worth documenting.
Also, for whatever reason, she has neglected to give the film a much-needed voice-over narration, which might help explain the significance of certain actions made by — and ceremonies observed by — this tribe of nomadic Tibetans who depend on crystalline salt for their very existence.
Four members of these nomads undertake an annual trip to Lake Tsentso, a body of water that produces vast quantities of the substance. Employing a caravan of yaks, the tribesmen hope to bring back enough salt to use to barter for grain and other needed supplies.
Along the way, each of the four fills a very specific role — one serves as "margen," or cook; one as "pargen," or group leader; one as "the Lord of the Animals"; and another as "bopsa," or novice. They also adhere to specific rules, such as using a peculiar "salt language," known only to them.
Needless to say, it's a harrowing trek, as the animals nearly starve — or worse, suffering from ailments that delay the caravan's progress. Also, the foursome faces competition from more "civilized" Tibetans, who use vehicles to bring out salt by the truckload.
As you can see, the concept behind the documentary is interesting — giving audiences a glimpse of life in some of the world's most extreme locations. Unfortunately, Koch never really seems to skim any lower than the surface in her questioning, and at one point the subjects look like they're having a laugh at the naive film crew's expense.
Worse, the expedition to the lake takes up most of the film, while the equally interesting salt "mining" process is merely glanced over. (And describing what happens when the four return to the tribe with only a hasty postscript feels like a cheat.)
That said, the movie is beautifully photographed and portions are quite compelling, thanks largely to the interviewees.
"The Saltmen of Tibet" is not rated but would probably receive a PG for a brief scene of animal slaughtering.