By Gaetano Kazuo Maida
Ignore the misleading title. The film opens with what appear to be two Chinese military observers speculating on the work and fate of an expedition that they have been watching from afar through telescopes. One says, “There was a pack of wolves at the summit… he went to photograph them, the wolves were following him. I thought they’d gobble him up, but he came back. I have no idea what they’re doing…” And we are truly and deeply hooked.
This is at once an adventure story, a philosophical conversation, and a rich display of the best of nature/wildlife filmmaking. It’s fitting that, in interviews, nature photographer and co-director Vincent Munier cites biologist George Schaller’s reports of expeditions to Tibet as one of his inspirations for seeking the rare and notoriously elusive snow leopard. THE VELVET QUEEN is nothing less than a bold cinematic homage to The Snow Leopard, the late Peter Matthiessen’s 1978 nonfiction masterpiece about traveling with Schaller to the Tibetan plateau.
Matthiessen’s book famously paired the author, an accomplished novelist and nature writer, with the seasoned field biologist, but their objectives were not exactly the same. Schaller was documenting the bharal, the Himalayan blue sheep. Where there are bharal, there may be snow leopards. But Matthiessen was also exploring his own mind, deepening his practice of Zen Buddhism he had begun a few years prior. He also hoped to meet a great Tibetan Buddhist lama at the Crystal Monastery in Dolpo, Nepal, near the planned expedition route. So, together, but apart…
THE VELVET QUEEN is also a rich and introspective conversation/monologue with a writer (in this case Syvain Tesson) and co-director Munier, that moves freely between philosophy and observations of the natural world. Tesson touches on that other search when he says that for this kind of expedition, with its long days of hiking and hours of silent watching and waiting, “you need a good inner life.” His character reveals itself a bit more when he quotes, “The Earth reeks of humans.” They notice caves in the cliffs and he speaks knowledgeably of Tibetan hermits and the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa.
There’s whimsy here too, though, in a wonderful sequence with Tibetan children from a nomad camp they encounter. But the heart of this film is the raw and wild natural world they explore with nothing more than binoculars and cameras, camouflaged and whispering in awe and respect.
I was smiling from the first frames to the last for so many reasons (most of them with fur or feathers), including the Nick Cave vocals in the evocative soundtrack. THE VELVET QUEEN was artfully and fearlessly filmed, with some miraculous footage, plus extraordinary wild animal photos by Munier.
So please, see this on the big screen; the vastness of the daunting landscapes, the challenging terrain, the sense of space and of a place out of time, all are only truly experienced in a theater. It’s for nature lovers and fans of quixotic adventures; but bring a sweater or a fleece—the vivid soundtrack will chill you!
THE VELVET QUEEN is playing exclusively in movie theaters across North America. In the San Francisco Bay Area it is playing at the Rafael, Landmark’s Embarcadero in San Francisco and Shattuck in Berkeley, and Summerfield in Santa Rosa. For advance tickets and to find other locations check here.
A film by Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier
Featuring Sylvain Tesson
France, 2021, 92 min., in French with English subtitles
Marie Amiguet is a Franco-Swiss director and cinematographer who joined forces with celebrated nature photographer Vincent Munier to craft THE VELVET QUEEN. Initially trained as a biologist, Amiguet earned a Master’s in Wildlife Cinema at IFFCAM and worked with Jean-Michel Bertrand on La Vallée des Loups before directing Avec les Loups, a portrait of the filmmaker. In 2017, she previously worked with Munier on one of his shorts, Silence des Bêtes (2017), a protest against lynx poaching.
Marie Amiguet’s other films.
Vincent Munier is a lifelong champion for nature and endangered species, Since 2011 he has spent several months in Tibet to bring back precious images of this world that is poised between land and sky. A lover of wild open spaces and of extreme nature, he chose photography as a tool to convey his dreams, his emotions, and his encounters. Munier received the prestigious Eric Hosking Award three times from the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year. His pictures are exhibited in galleries around the world and he co-directed OURS, Simplement Sauvage.. He also founded the Kobalann publishing company and has authored a dozen books.
Vincent Munier Kobalann Website offers books, calendars and fine art prints.
See Vincent Munier’s photography on Instragram.
Watch other short documentaries by Munier.
THE VELVET QUEEN is the feature directorial debut for both filmmakers.
Read Anne-Katrin Titze’s interview with the filmmakers for Eye for Film.
Sylvain Tesson is an award-winning French writer and traveler. A geographer by training, he has travelled the world using many different methods of transportation including bicycle, train, horse, and even on foot, walking from Russia to India. He participated in archaeological digs in Afghanistan and Pakistan and wintered alone in a cabin on a remote lake in Siberia. He co-directed a documentary, ALONE, 180 DAYS ON LAKE BAILAL (2011) based on his book The Consolations of the Forest (Penguin, 2013) which was later adapted into a dramatic film, IN THE FORESTS OF SIBERIA (2016). One of France’s most celebrated travel writers, he has been awarded the Prix Medicis and the Prix Goncourt de la Nouvelle. The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet won the Prix Renaudot in 2019.
He recently completed Travel Book Mars with comic book artist François Schuiten.
LISTEN TO EXCERPTS FROM THE SOUNDTRACK BY NICK CAVE AND WARREN ELLIS.
Read about the soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis for VELVET QUEEN.
The Press Notes are a superb accompaniment for anyone interested in knowing more about the film and filmmakers. Read here.
Gaetano Kazuo Maida is a media professional and strategic planner. He has both owned as well as consulted for restaurants and opened a tea shop. He was a founding director of the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle, and producer/director of several films including Peace Is Every Step, a film profile of Vietnamese Zen teacher/activist Thich Nhat Hanh, narrated by Ben Kingsley. Among his other films as director and/or producer are The Simple Life, On the Luce, Rock Soup, Milarepa, and Touching Peace.
He is currently executive director of the nonprofit Tea Arts Institute and Buddhist Film Foundation . Last June, Buddhist Film Foundation joined with San Francisco Bay Area activists and filmmakers to create the Burma Spring Benefit Film Festival (BSBFF) in response to the humanitarian and civil rights crisis triggered by the military coup in Burma. BSBFF Encore Edition is set to begin on the anniversary of the coup, and runs February 1–13, 2022 to bring new awareness and raise more funds for humanitarian aid there. Information here.