Journey from Zanskar has been made with unusual intelligence, common sense, and decency; it’s the rare urgent-issue movie that refuses to pummel you with the importance of its subject matter, which in this case involves the shameful, potential extinction of a culture. The remote area of the ancient kingdom of Zanskar in Kashmir is one of the last remaining Tibetan Buddhist communities with an unbroken lineage dating back thousands of years, and, as the film establishes in the first few minutes, that heritage is imperiled. Partitioned from Tibet by British mandate in 1947, Kashmir has effectively cut Zanskar off from all resources such as electricity and water, and roads and even paths are virtually nonexistent. Education is also scarce, as the few-and-far-between schools teach little in the way of the actual Tibetan culture. The citizens of Zanskar are mostly illiterate and, one gathers from the haunting footage, hopeless.
A risky rescue mission of sorts is devised to combat the despair and seemingly inevitable cultural erosion. Two monks are dispatched by the Dalai Lama from Zanskar’s Stongde monastery to bring a number of the area’s brightest children back to Stongde where they can be properly educated, which could lead them to positions in the monastery, among other pursuits. But the true purpose, of course, is to temporarily reinvigorate a fading culture while other long-term solutions, such as the building of new schoolhouses, are contemplated.
The catch is that the staggering 180-mile journey is fraught with enough peril for one of those mammoth Lord of the Rings films. The most geographically convenient path is potentially occupied by terrorists along the neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan borders, which eventually leaves as the only viable alternative a path that will take the children up and over the top of a 17,500-foot peak in the subzero temperatures of the Himalayas—a pursuit that would best many full-grown adults much less the six- and seven-year-olds attempting the trek.
Marx, most famously the co-writer of Hoop Dreams, exhibits a gift for pared observation that similarly characterized that film. While the subject matters offers endless opportunities for politically charged speeches and enraged pretense, Journey from Zanskar maintains a level-headed, matter-of-fact tone that humanizes the Zanskaris without stooping to crass exploitation, a delicacy in approach that especially serves the heartrending moments when the children must separate from the parents. Marx also accomplishes something that’s difficult for any film involving a journey whether it’s fictional or nonfictional: He successfully establishes to the viewer the immense work and effort involved in the undertaking, and he allows you to feel each day as it passes. The visuals are also thematically apropos: grainy, brownish, a little blurry, but often ironically beautiful considering the danger involved. The film is a little square at times (with illustrated bite-size history lessons in place of a more cinematic approach to storytelling), but Journey to Zanskar is still a quiet achievement, which sadly means it’s destined to be overlooked in a culture that’s more preoccupied with shock than awe.