Mountainfilm in Aspen: ‘The Last Honey Hunter’
If You Go …
What: ‘The Last Honey Hunter,’ presented by Mountainfilm in Aspen
Where: Cooking School of Aspen
When: Friday, Aug. 25, 12:30 p.m.
How much: $25 (lunch included)
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: ‘The Last Honey Hunter” director Ben Knight and Jim Nowack, founder of dZi Foundation, which co-produced the film, will be on hand for a post-screening discussion.
Thousands of feet up a sheer cliff, Mauli Dhan Rai dangles from a rope ladder. He is swarmed by tens of thousands of bees that sting every exposed surface of his skin. The view is vertigo-inducing. The pain unthinkable. But the duty of this “honey hunter” is sacred.
The short film “The Last Honey Hunter,” screening Friday at Mountainfilm in Aspen, follows Mauli Dhan as he scales cliffs high above the remote mountain community of Saadi, Nepal. His task, and his lifelong mission, is to harvest poisonous honey made by the world’s largest honeybee. The Kulung people believe this honey comes directly from the god Rongkemi, “master of the cliffs.”
“Rongkemi always gets his way,” the honey hunter says in the film. “He rules over the forest, steep cliffs and mountains. He is not human. I try to appease him with incantations and offerings. Only fools like me go up to the cliffs.”
The villagers sacrifice chickens, chant and sing before Mauli Dhan embarks on his death-defying climbs. He and his helpers hike through rugged, rainy mountains, carrying massive rope ladders coiled on their backs, with long bamboo poles to build bridges across rivers and streams. They give offerings to Rongkemi along the way, asking for his forbearance.
When he finds nests, Mauli Dhan breaks them apart and carries out what he can in baskets. Bees sting him everywhere — on his hands, face and in his eyes, through his clothing — but he persists.
Mauli Dhan was called to this difficult work through a childhood dream. It marked him as “the chosen one” to harvest honey from the sacred bees. Of slight build and humble demeanor, he scales sheer cliffs in harsh conditions, powered by a belief that he is invincible.
The 35-minute film, produced in association with National Geographic and the dZi Foundation, portrays the job as a sacred duty and a terrible curse as well as a superhuman feat of mountaineering. Director Ben Knight paces the story slowly and contemplatively. He allows Mauli Dhan and other villagers to tell the tale themselves — there is no voiceover, no text on the screen offering context. It makes for an immersive, entrancing viewing experience.
The honey is extremely poisonous and used for ceremonial purposes. Eat a little and you lose control of yourself — “you vomit, piss and shit yourself at once,” a villager explains — but it cleanses your body. Eat a little too much and you die.
The honor of hunting honey also is a hex, Mauli Dahn explains, and has led to dire consequences in his personal life.
“I’m beginning to think that I have been cursed,” he says.
No honey hunter has been called to succeed him when he dies, leaving the future of this spiritual tradition in doubt. And even if another hunter is so called, villagers fear their sacred honey will soon be unreachable.
This difficult work is getting only more difficult. The bees are moving higher and farther away, due to increasing human incursion into these mountains.
“There are too many people now,” a trader named Jange explains in the film, “and too much pollution.”