“The Shepherdess of the Glaciers” is Tsering, one of the last shepherdesses in the tiny Himalayan region of Ladakh, India.
Living by herself out on the desolate mountains and in the grass-covered valleys, Tsering tends to a flock of 300 sheep and goats, moving them from place to place, grinding food for the pregnant ewes, caring for newborn lambs and recounting stories of protecting them from snow leopards, wolves and dogs.
For four seasons, her brother, documentary filmmaker Stanzin Dorjai-Gya, followed Tsering as she trod through knee-deep snow, pushed the sheep and goats across rivers and penned the animals while living in a tent with a radio as her only companion.
Tsering, of course, comes to the village where her family lives a few times. It's there that we learn her nieces — and few others — have little interest in becoming shepherds, casting the ancient way of life into the danger of extinction.
That’s the gist of the film, directed by Dorjai-Gya and Christiane Mordelet. But that description doesn’t get to the reasons “The Shepherdess of the Glaciers” is captivating, instructive and a hit on the film festival circuit.
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First among those reasons is the visuals — beautiful shots of mountains covered with scrub grasses in the summer, snow in the winter, the valleys and the animals roaming on them. (The little lambs are beyond cute.) And Tsering's stays with her family provide a glimpse inside the village and its homes.
That’s a world without television and the internet, in which children entertain themselves and their elders by making shadow puppets and dutifully perform their prostrations in front of the family’s Buddhist shrine.
Then there’s the simple, seemingly eternal story of the shepherdess sacrificing everything to care for the sheep, her fingernails broken down to the quick from reaching into the snow, giving some of her food to the animals and anguishing when lambs are smothered by their mothers in the crowded pen.
Finally, there’s Tsering herself, an illiterate woman who copes as best she can with loneliness, clearly cares as much for the sheep as she does for anything — she calls taking care of them her religion — and works tirelessly on hours long walks.
That makes “The Shepherdess of the Glaciers” one of those rare, oft-little seen documentaries that presents and preserves a way of life unknown to the wider world. And it does so with visual power and deep feeling.