‘Piano to Zanskar’: Film Review | Edinburgh 2018

A British piano teacher embarks on a dangerous trek to the Himalayas in the documentary ‘Piano to Zanskar.’

Although some might have political objections to a film that celebrates bringing Western culture to a remote village in India, ignore those spoilsports and enjoy a fascinating musical odyssey. Piano to Zanskar, a documentary that had its world premiere in Edinburgh, deserves distribution beyond the festival circuit, where it is sure to thrive. Given the success of other music docs, this one seems certain to delight most audiences.

Director Michal Sulima acknowledges that one of his influences was Werner Herzog’s movie Fitzcarraldo, about a mad obsession to transport a steamship over the Andes. In this case Desmond O’Keeffe, a 65-year-old London piano tuner and teacher, dreams of bringing a fine piano to a tiny village called Lingshed, 14,000 feet above sea level in the Himalayas. The director chronicled the perilous journey through spectacular mountain settings.

The Bottom Line

Hits sweet notes.

The film never quite explains the source of O’Keeffe’s obsession. It seems that it was partly the challenge that tickled him, along with a genuine desire to share his love of music with those who might never been exposed to it. Desmond travels with a couple of helpers, including a young woman whose interest in saving primitive environments dovetails with the piano teacher’s obsession with education and culture. The team enlisted Indian Sherpas to help with the transport, though we are never told exactly what encouraged them to risk their lives to realize this grand obsession.

For those viewers concerned that the film may be proselytizing for Westerners’ desire to bring their culture to distant parts of the world, it’s interesting to realize that a major cultural transformation has preceded this journey. The Sherpas are all dressed in Western clothes, so their traditional way of life had been modified long before O’Keeffe arrived in India. Although there are humorous moments caught in this clash of cultures, other scenes are more harrowing, with obvious dangers for the Sherpas as well as the film crew chronicling the adventure.

Not surprisingly, the piano is damaged on the perilous journey, so there’s some suspense as to whether the mission can be salvaged once they reach their destination. The piano is meant for a primary school in Lingshed, and seeing the eager and surprised look on the children’s faces when this curious new instrument arrives in their village, we certainly find ourselves rooting for the mission to be accomplished.

The characters keep us engaged, and Sulima, who doubled as cinematographer, achieves startling and frightening sequences throughout the journey. The stirring conclusion should satisfy all but the most cynical in the audience. O’Keeffe retained an interest in the village long after the first journey, and he returned several times after the first adventure. Thanks to this immersive piece of filmmaking, adventurous audiences may well want to tag along.

Director: Michal Sulima
Producer: Jarek Kotomski
Director of photography: Michal Sulima
Editor: Agathe Barbier

Music: Ernst Reijseger, Daniel Sonabend
Sales: Starline Entertainment

86 minutes