Finding a Familiar Humanity Half a World Away

Nelson Walker with baby Jiatomah

The filmmaking juggernaut of Lynn True, Nelson Walker, and Tsering Perlo dropped by the Independent Lens offices in between trips to Tibet to visit with Locho and Yama, the couple at the heart of their documentary Summer Pasture, which premieres on  May 10 at 10pm (check local listings). We asked them about making such an intimate film about a culture few Westerners know exists. (We also discovered the astonishing yak photo gallery they have on their site … seriously, go look at some pretty yaks.)

Yama and Locho guide the filmmakers on horseback

What impact do you hope this film will have?
We were lucky to have such intimate access to the nomad community in Dzachukha, and wanted to make a film that would open a window onto this way of life. Most of all, we hope audiences will feel a sense of personal connection with Locho and Yama, and gain an intimate understanding of the challenges they are facing. Ideally, we’d like Locho and Yama’s experiences to be a starting point for dialogue about the larger issues confronting Tibetan communities.

What led you to make this film?
In 2006 we traveled to eastern Tibet on a project spearheaded by the University of Virginia and the NGO Machik. On this trip, we met Tsering Perlo, a young Tibetan who was in the process of starting his own NGO to encourage filmmaking in Tibet. We became friends, and decided to work together on a film that would be an honest and intimate portrait of the community where Perlo grew up.

Locho checks his complextion as Yama churns butter

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
It was difficult simply getting to the pasture in the first place. After 18 hours of flights to China, the trip involved a 3-day journey by car over mountain roads, and finally 6 hours on horseback. But our greatest challenge was translating the 200 hours of footage we shot. Perlo had helped us communicate when we were filming, but unfortunately we couldn’t work with him during the translation process back in New York. Locho and Yama speak an uncommon dialect of Tibetan, so we had to get much of the footage doubly translated – once from the original dialect into a more common Tibetan dialect, and then again from the more common dialect into English. That whole process took over a year.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
Locho is Perlo’s cousin, so trust was never an issue – it was more a matter of Locho and Yama becoming comfortable with the camera, which came from spending a lot of time together and being transparent about our process.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
There was a wonderful scene of Yama feeding her baby yak yogurt for the first time. The baby had yogurt all over her face and in her hair. It was extremely cute, but Yama felt it made her daughter look dirty and asked us not to include it.

Jiatomah (pale, chubby baby)

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
When Yama reveals Locho’s infidelities, we were in total shock. She had only mentioned the affair in passing, and then one day when she was washing clothes the whole story just tumbled out. What truly amazed us though, was her response to the situation. Although she and Locho are living the consequences of his actions, Yama has moved forward with such grace and self-assurance.

FIlmmaker Lynn True with Yama

What has the audience response been so far? Have Yama and Locho seen it, and if so, what did they think?
The response has been really positive, and people often remark how familiar Locho and Yama seem, despite living a world apart. As soon as we had a rough cut of the film, we sent it to Perlo who showed it to Locho and Yama on his laptop. They loved it, and felt it was an accurate portrayal of their lives, which was the greatest compliment we could receive.

The independent film business is a difficult one.  What keeps you motivated?
Working as filmmakers has afforded us the extraordinary privilege of getting to know people from all walks of life. It’s these relationships, and a genuine love for the filmmaking process that keeps us going. When you love what you’re doing, the challenges you face become opportunities for creative breakthroughs and personal growth.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Through series like Independent Lens, PBS is one of the few major outlets that truly honors the vision of independent filmmakers. PBS programs reach millions of people, which is a dream come true for us.

Yama teaches Lynn (right) how to dry yak dung.

What is the question you most get from audiences?
People often wonder what it was like to live in the pasture for three months. We stayed in nylon camping tents and lived a sort of “nomad-light” version of what you see in the film – we rose at dawn, hauled our own water, cooked food over a yak-dung fire, and all our camera batteries were charged on solar panels, though we did bring a small generator to power a laptop and a projector for screening footage.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Showers. It seems silly, but how we bathed is a common question from Western audiences. We actually did bring a camping shower, but a yak stepped on it and broke it the first day.

What are your three favorite films?
Lynn: I’m a big fan of the Dardenne brothers’ films.

Nelson: It changes with the angle of the sun, but recently I saw The Sun Beaten Path by Sonthar Gyal, and really enjoyed it.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Keep your process open to accidents and detours – they can be great opportunities to make something truly unique and unexpected.

What kinds of comestibles keep you sustained while making your films?
For this film, it was momos, a Tibetan dumpling filled with yak meat, mutton, or vegetables.

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  • Guest

    Saw the premiere of this tonight and it is simply incredible. I know Locho and Yama will never know who I am but I feel like I know them. In fact when the program said you could go online and get updates about them I immediately checked (didn’t realize at the time that it was the premiere), and was then disappointed because it’s too early for there to be any updates! Again, a really really incredible film and I’d highly recommend it to anyone.

    • Jww

      Keep in mind this was recorded on 2007 or 2008.

      • Jww

        Here’s somewhat of an update. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o1p8m8-fQjA

        • Bonnie Baker88

          I watched the short clip on youtube. It is worth watching to find out how this couple is doing. It looks as though they are a bit more prosperous and seem to have grown with their family in a good way. I hope to see more updates in the future. I can’t help but remain in awe of this family and the hardships they endure in their harsh environment. Peace and prosperity Locho and Yama!

  • http://twitter.com/pinkpeony28 pinkpeony28

    i loved this film. I loved locho and yama. I loved their baby girl!! Thank you for making this.

  • Skymindeye

    my heart goes out to locho and yama and how hard they struggle, and , how the world around them is quick to take advantage of them.my grandfathers and grandmothers were fishing people from poland and I see our commen yearning ” to be literate” to be respected and to be treated fairly by the government, and of course to enjoy the “pursuit of happiness” that some reward for their work would bring. all of us are either “confused” or” literate” {and usually both}.. let the literate extend a hand to the confused.. AND THE FILMING ? A STUDY IN TRUST AND EMPATHY. ,,MIKE HEY,, PBS… YOUR LITTLE ANTI-SPAM TRICK IS WAAAY TOO AMBIGUOUS !!!!!! EIGHT TIMES SO FAR —- ARE YOU PEOPLE NUTS OR CERTIFIABLY PARANOID ???

  • Chandra

    I was hoping to find updates on how Locho and Yama and their family are doing, but couldn’t find anything. Is their any info. on how everyone is doing? It is difficult to get to know something of a family and so care about what happens to them and yet have no way of knowing or finding out what the next chapter of their lives brought to them. I hope they are all well.
    Are the kids still okay? Did the swelling on Yama’s liver go away or even treated?

  • Guest

    Wonderful,touching film
    I came across this documentary at 1 am in the morning and I was soo engrossed in it. Locho and Yama seem to be such simple sincere people that we don’t find anymore in the modern world. Unlike most “reality” tv shows, they are “real” without trying to be. Its about love, survival, compassion, and a belief in each other. It touched me so much when Yama wished her daughter could one day be a nun, to have a better life. While we live in a world where we are always asking for more and there is never enough. I have a daughter about the same age as their child and couldn’t imagine how difficult it must be to survive on a daily basis. I also logged on PBS immediately for updates, not realizing the film was just released.
    If someone would set up a fund for Yama’s medical care as well as the baby’s, I would be the first to donate money. She already lost two children, that is more than enough for any parent to go through. I would guess they were do to lack of vaccinations, poor nutrition, and no medical care. I would go insane if anything ever happened to my child.

    Lovely film, Beautiful real people,

    • guest responder

      Hi guest, Assuming you are in the west, maybe you are the ‘someone’ who could start the fund for Yama’s medical care. I don’t know how Yama does it, hepatitis makes you soooo tired! If everyone who wants to follow the little family and cares as we all seem to (many views of updates on youtube), were to donate a small amount, in no time there would be enough to make a difference. Western money goes so much further!

  • Jo

    I thought the program was wonderful.Locho and Yama was so friendly. The baby is a doll and so good.I felt like I was there with you. I pray for them and Yama’s health. hope to see an up date. Thank You

  • Bonnie Baker88

    I also loved this film. I felt an immediate liking of this couple and their baby. However, I also felt that Yama’s medical probelms were probably played down and will contribute to plague her significantly in the life she has yet to live. I truly hope her health problems have cleared up and would love to hear more about them and their daily struggles. The Nomads life is very hard but I hope they prosper and find lots of the catepillar fungus to line their coffers.

  • Diana

    I too fell in love with this young couple & wished I could know them better. Great job on the filming & telling the story. Now I am worried about Yama’s health and how stoic she is about it.

  • Suswarani

    I loved the film. I immediately liked this couple and cared about what would happen to them. Their life is so hard. I could not be that brave. I hope Yama’s medical problems were addressed. AND I hope you paid them in some way. I pray for them and wish them well. Thank you for making this film. Om Ah Hum

  • guest

    I really loved the film. Locho and Yama are so warm, and the baby is so cute. They have so little in the way of material things, but so much as far as warmth, integrity, hard working folks.
    I would love to see a follow-up film on this little family and I highly recommend this film.
    thank you for bringing this type of film to American audiences.

  • Cassandra

    Just amazing… thank you, thank you for creating this film AND providing info to follow up and support the on-going projects (http://www.khamfilmproject.org/).

  • Tsering Dawa

    I absolutely loved it. Simple yet powerful. I laughed. I cried. It left me thinking about Yama’s health and why/how their previous children died.

  • Gjahyu

    It is one of the most awaited documentary which has a remarkable personal touch and sad story of marginalized peoples with their livelihood threatened with the unhealthy modernization of a communist intruder.