The Saltmen of Tibet

Documentary | Running Time: 108min | Director: Ulrike Koch | Available on DVD

Sweeping landscapes and picturesque mountains serve as the backdrop to a story of an ancient culture consumed by modern innovation. The film follows 5 men, the Saltmen of Tibet, as they execute an annual journey to Lake Tsenso to collect salt so they may buy barley for the coming year. Fair warning: this documentary is not for everyone. It is extremely slow-paced and the average person will likely turn it off after the first 10 minutes. But if you’re reading this you’re probably not the average type of person.

It is after the first 10 minutes that shades and tones emerge. The roles of men and women in the larger Saltmen community are well defined and similar to what westerners would expect; the men do a lot of the physical labor and the women keep hearth and home. However, it is only the men who are allowed to journey to Lake Tsenso to collect salt. Once on the trail, the men reform a new social structure, with a “father,” a “mother,” “animal master” and “novice.”

The men have even developed a segregated “Saltman language” that the women are not allowed to know or speak. The documentary, for its slow pacing fells more like an anthropological study of cultures and social structures. If there was a companion novel that would go with the film it would certainly be Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life or Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. And if you know these books I’m talking about, then you probably the right kind of person for this movie. From an anthropological standpoint, this is a fascinating exploration into foreign cultures and rituals.

The power of The Saltmen of Tibet comes from the deeply religious nature of the saltmen communities. We experience both the Buddhist rituals and the mythological histories of their beloved Tibet. The trip on foot and horseback to collect salt is also a religious journey to which the Saltmen sacrifice to be rewarded by the gods. How they have conducted their lives is reflected in the bounty the lake provides them; if they have lived a virtuous life, then the god of the lake will reward them. It may be selling the film short to say that if you get past the first 10 minutes that the rest of the movie is worthwhile. The first 10 minutes help readjust you away from the fast-cut, high-velocity entertainment we have here and transports you to a place of sincerity and reflection. The journey can be jarring, for sure and unfortunately a journey the average person is unwilling to make.

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