I’ll begin writing about Au-delà des hautes vallées, or Far Beyond the Pasturelands, with a disclaimer. A disclaimer that yes, I ended up liking the documentary, but its first act isn’t its best. This act focuses on Lalita, a Nepalese woman who, as she says through her voice-overs, never imagined herself living on a village. But there she is, preparing for a season where she and her fellow villagers in Maikot make preparations before travelling further up the mountains. There are some fascinating things about this first act. Especially, when directors Maude Plante-Husaruk and Maxime Lacoste-Lebuis show how modernity infiltrates the villagers’ lives.
Sometimes, some of these preparations feel like they need to explain a few more things about it. The villagers are, by the way, harvesting what the film calls yarsagumba, a fungus. Yarsagumba, or cordyceps, works as an aphrodisiac and as a fitness snack. This fungus, which sellers package pills, is worth $25 a bottle, and the villagers receive a reasonable price for harvesting each piece. A voice off the distance announces the beginning of the harvest. The villagers walk and spread out in all directions, some of them jogging. Their loud voices show an excitement that will peter out throughout the season.
And this is when Au-delà des hautes vallées becomes interesting, as it shows the organized chaos of the season. Au-delà shows that sometimes the macro is better than the micro. This version is good but a better one may start with this crowd of enthusiastic villagers before it zooms in on captivating individuals like Lalita. Also, adding the consumers’ role in yarsagumba farming, which is what I do in this review, may have made Hautes vallées unwieldy which thankfully the documentary doesn’t do. Instead, Hautes vallées zooms in on Lalita and her fellow villagers. It then makes its viewers understand what the fungus means to the villagers.
Sometimes the camera zooms out just the right amount to show the work’s physical nature. The villagers, many of them women, have to crawl on their hands and knees to harvest something that we in the West don’t even know about. Hautes vallées shows how the actions of one harvester may affect another. Being unable to find the fungus within a mountain covered in dry grass or worse, stepping on the fungus. These will destroy the product as well as a harvester’s means of income. As cliche as this sounds, documentaries like this puts a lot of things into perspective.
Au-delà des hautes vallées opened in Toronto’s Hot Docs Cinema yesterday.
- Release Date: 1/2/2023