Locho and Yama in the documentary “Summer Pasture.”

Like a lot of married couples, Locho and Yama both work outside the home while rearing a child. But unlike most married couples, their work is literally outside — in the sprawling grasslands of Dzachukha, 15,000 feet above sea level in eastern Tibet.

The area is nicknamed “5 most” by the Chinese because it’s the coldest, highest, largest, poorest and most remote area in Sichuan Province China. To further complicate their lives, Locho and Yama are also nomads who have inherited the lifestyle that their ancestors lived for 4,000 years.

In the absorbing documentary, “Summer Pacture,” filmmakers Lynn True, Nelson Walker and Tsering Perlo observe Locho and Yama in their encampment and while performing daily chores that accompany the raising of yaks. Here, there are no flushing toilets, running water, electricity or telephone service. Instead, the spacious landscape stretches magnificently before meeting an infinite swath of sky. Featuring fascinating local culture and breathtaking scenery, the film looks like a National Geographic photo spread although it’s the real life characters of Locho and Yama that make it so captivating.

As a yak herder, husband Locho has the responsibility for ensuring his livestock doesn’t run away or get stolen. And, he sometimes babysits their daughter while his wife Yama is busy with household tasks. But all other duties seem to default to Yama. Each morning, she milks the yaks, collects their dung, spreads it with her bare hands to dry, then gathers dried dung and tosses it into the basket weighing down her bent back. It will be used for the fire that she cooks over and that heats their congested tent.

Scene from the documentary “Summer Pasture.”

As for Locho, he works hard, too, riding his horse and keeping track of the yaks. But where Yama is in constant motion — churning yak butter, making yak cheese, feeding the baby — Locho finds leisure time to pick at the pimples on his face while gazing into a mirror and slathering on skin cream. His vanity openly displayed, Locho readily admits to having been a player who slept with any woman he desired. The more Locho confesses his indiscretions against the backdrop of Yama’s cleaning, cooking and catering to the baby, the more self-absorbed he appears although Yama scarcely seems to notice.

Bantering, and at times fussing, the couple has developed a familiar rhythm of jousting indicative of their years together. Sharing the chore of rope-making seems to bond them further by a special cord of intimacy. Still, Locho seems powerless to stop gawking at his mirrored reflection while mourning over his acne. As for Yama, a veil of unmistakable grief has settled onto her face and, we later learn why when she reveals several tragic events to the filmmakers.

In an effort to provide better for his family, Locho goes to the city to sell the caterpillar fungus they’ve collected that’s in demand among Chinese herbalists. Bartering with shopkeepers, he marvels at the modernity of their environment. As his voice betrays regret, he laments his grandmother keeping him from school resulting in his illiteracy and inability to speak Chinese to the shopkeepers. Locho’s view of the world as a rapidly changing place only adds to his feelings of isolation as fellow nomads move to the city, one by one.

For Yama, the idea of change is frightening even as she finds herself working longer hours. Sick and in need of medicine, she nevertheless clings to the familiar all the while hoping her daughter becomes a nun to avoid living like her parents. Carrying dried dung on her curved back, her wind-burned cheeks flaming, Yama looks like a poster child representing Third World labor. Meanwhile, Locho talks of selling their herd and moving to the city so their daughter can be educated.

While “Summer Pasture” is seemingly a tale about a nomadic family surviving the hostile mountainous environment of Tibet, it’s also the story of a married couple’s relationship. At once harsh and hopeful, it also begs the question: Will Locho’s and Yama’s child become the first in 4,000 years to lead their family to a new life?

“Summer Pasture” screens December 30 – January 5, 2012 at the Northwest Film Forum. Also, the film will broadcast on PBS’ Independent Lens on May 10, 2012.

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