Eric Valli, writer, photographer, and filmmaker, is a regular visitor to Nepal in connection with his many projects. Valli's abiding interest in the relationship that people in different parts of Nepal have with nature form the basis of his most famous works, The Honey Hunters of Nepal and Caravan. Valli was recently in Nepal, and this time around not for a project, but to support Thinley Lhondup, the much-loved star of Caravan, who is suffering from cancer of the stomach. Nepali Times met Valli in Jiri, where he and Thinley were part of the large crowd watching their film under the stars.
Nepali Times: How do you make your movies?
Eric Valli: I completely become a student and dive into the reality. I live with people to become like them. For some time, I act as a fly on the wall-trying to forget everything else and learn what I need to learn. In doing so, characters automatically emerge. Then, I follow a certain storyline to make it a film.
Why have you never revealed where Honey Hunters was shot? What's the story?
I read a few lines about honey hunters in Seven Years in Tibet, and that was enough to intrigue me. I set out to find them. It took me about a year-and-a-half to meet Manilal, who became the protagonist of the film. It was amazing to see how much their lives depended on beehives. Making the film was difficult-scale a cliff and hold on to a rope with a camera, all while being stung by hundreds of bees.
I only had $20,000 and that was seriously not enough. I just shot it, and then showed it to National Geographic. They agreed to buy it and did the post production. Royalties from the film go to Manilal's community for their betterment.
The location is a secret. In many of my books, you won't find names of the places. As a responsible writer, it's my duty to preserve those places from being affected by a lot of commercial tourists who would go there to make money, spoiling their naturalness.
How did Thinley come to be in Caravan?
I first heard about Nepal in 1972 in Varanasi-that it's the country of mountains, adventure, and great culture. I came to Kathmandu that same year as a traveller, and went to remote places like Dolpo, where I met Thinle in 1981. He was the village head and had a great sense of humour. We've been friends since then.
I wrote a book on the Dolpo region called Caravans of the Himalaya in 1994; there are pictures of Thinle leading a caravan in the book too. One fine day, he said: "why don't you make a film about us?" I liked the idea, and had already dreamed about it. I wanted to show real stories with real people, and Thinle fit in there.
What are you most concerned with in your books and films?
I've written almost 20 books on Nepal. Most show the courage and tolerance of Nepali people, and the relationship they have with nature. In the west, it is impossible to find such bonding. Honey Hunters sold more than 100,000 copies. I've also written about Raji, the little-known tribe who are fishermen and who also hunt for honey. People like them have incredible knowledge of nature, and that inspires me to write.
How do you feel about Nepal 35 years after your first visit? You speak Nepali fluently, have travelled all over, seen its ups and downs.
If I were a poor Nepali starving to death (like many I've met in the west) and the government and the ministers were doing nothing for me, I'd have become a Maoist. The seeds for the insurgency were sown by nothing but weak governance. Like in Caravan, the two groups didn't want to negotiate for a decade, and the situation worsened. Now that these groups have given up their stubbornness, I think things will start to improve. And if the situation really improves, I'll live in Nepal again.
How does it feel, being famous in Nepal?
It feels great. Now, it's easier for me to work in Nepal because I do not need to introduce myself, and no one needs to fear that I'm a smuggler, a CIA agent, or a crook. The late King Birendra once said to me: "You're making me discover my own country." That's one of the best compliments I have received.