LOS ANGELES — French filmmaker Eric Valli asks and answers a question: Two trails open in front of you. Which one do you take?
"You always take the hardest one," says the documentarian-turned-feature-film-director, "so that you can squeeze the hardest from life. When you take the challenging path, you discover who you really are."
From the age of 13, when his artist father handed him a book about Tibet that set him on a lifelong quest for exotic locales, Valli has chosen challenges most artists would shy away from.
His feature film debut, "Himalaya," was shot on location in the Dolpo region of northwest Nepal at breathtaking heights and with few Hollywood safeguards. It opens today in theaters across the United States.
"Many people would say it was impossible to do what we did, shoot for nine months at 10,000 feet in the mountains," Valli says.
"It was tough to shoot in a snowstorm," says the father of three children, who has made his home in Nepal for the past 18 years. "What you see on the film is what we experienced. There is one special effect" - he adds with a laugh - "a fiberglass yak, but besides that everything is real."
The film's story is what Valli calls with a typical absence of cynicism the first Tibetan western. The showdown is not at the OK Corral over horses, but high in the mountains over the annual caravan of yaks. Rash youths learn from the wise elders of the tribe, but not before all suffer great tragedy and hardship.
It's not as if Valli hasn't scaled mountainous territory before. He is the author of many books about Nepal and was a National Geographic photographer before filming "Himalaya" in 1997.
Valli has been on the road from the age of 18. He lived in the Dolpo region of Nepal for three years. When he realized he wanted to do a film about the Dolpopas, who carry on many of the traditions of ancient Tibetan culture, he says, "I didn't do this to please anyone, it was just carved into my gut.
"What I learned from these people is courage, dignity, and tolerance," Valli says, [but] also about living in harmony with nature."
A valentine to a hard and truthful way of life that has all but disappeared, "Himalaya" was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year and won a Cesar Award in France for best cinematography and best original music.
Valli hopes that audiences will see what he saw in these simple but passionate people.
"The thing I like about these people is that when you are there, you can't wear a mask for long," he says. "You can't lie or play games like in the big cities or the so-called civilized world.
"Up there, you have to be who you are, you have to be able to trust your neighbor to survive."
With "Himalaya," Valli had another agenda in mind besides making an engaging movie. "This film will be one of the few testimonies of this great [Nepalese] culture that has ever been done," he says.
Aware that Tibet itself - a region that China has brutally occupied for many years - has been turned into a trendy cause celebre in Hollywood, Valli is unapologetic. "I'm not an intellectual," says the former cabinetmaker from Dijon, France. "Some critics accuse me of being romantic or naive, and that's OK, because I am."
Over time, his guiding ethos has been simple.
"I want to go where I've never been, exploring my fears and what I don't know," he says. "I want to give meaning to this whole circus of life and question, 'Who am I?' "
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor