When I first saw the teaser of Sunakali on YouTube in August, I was extremely excited. There was a buzz about the teaser and a couple of thousand hits. I could understand why. The five minute promo had spectacular visuals of Mugu, introducing viewers to a bunch of young girls playing football with abandonment in rugged, snowy terrain – not the norm in Nepal. There was something raw, earthy and very Nepali about the film. I thought it would be ideal for the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival, or KIMFF in short. The festival is held every December starting on the 10th, on International Mountain Day.
I called Sunakali’s director Bhojraj Bhat and asked him to submit the film at the earliest, as the festival deadline for submissions was approaching fast. He sent us an hour-long finished documentary.
As the selection committee of KIMFF sat to watch some 50 films submitted to the Nepal Panorama section of KIMFF 2014, including Sunakali, my heart sank. Sunakali was not the documentary I was looking forward to. The film was about the formation of a girls’ football team in Mugu but it was also a tourism promo and a development profile of the district with an omnipresent voiceover reminiscent of the documentary fare broadcast on Nepal’s national and private televisions.
Sunakali is newspaper-journalist-turned-filmmaker Bhat’s debut film. It was clear that Bhat was still thinking like a print journalist; the film was more reportage than story-telling. But, most significantly missing were the voices of the very subjects the film was about.
Bhat and his team have put in tremendous hard work and passion into Sunakali. Over two years of filming in a difficult and physically challenging terrain like Mugu, they shot nearly 150 hours of footage. Originally about 60 minutes in length, told in a linear style, they were exhausted and unsure how to proceed with the film. Sunakali is a classic example of how documentaries are being made in Nepal today. The filmmaker is normally commissioned by non-governmental national and international organisations to make a profile about the organisation’s works or projects. In the case of Sunakali, Good Neighbours Nepal, a non-profit organizations working with communities in far-western Nepal supported the film. I am grateful that they did. It allowed KIMFF an opening film.
The re-edited version, or the director’s version, which screened at KIMFF, is shorter, tighter, and, what is most crucial, we hear, see and empathise with Sunakali—the main protagonist—and her teammates. The film is about football but also about the remoteness and inaccessibility of Mugu, the situation of women there and of the gaping development divide between the district and the rest of Nepal. It proved popular with KIMFF audiences, won the Best ICIMOD Mountain Film Award and has been invited to a couple of mountain film festivals outside Nepal.
There is an increasing interest in making films today. Digital technology is cheaper and accessible; potential filmmakers have direct access to vibrant social media such as YouTube and Flickr. And they have ideas. As one KIMFF colleague pointed out it’s a ‘sexy’ medium which we need to tap if we want to reach out to young people. Judging by the number of entries from young filmmakers to KIMFF and their presence at the festival, I tend to agree. High school graduate Astha Thapa candidly shared how she had turned to the Internet for pointers on how to make a film prior to submitting a 3 minute short for ‘The Generation Green’ short-film contest organised by WWF Nepal and KIMFF. Thapa’s film Our Earth made it to the top ten selections from more than 80 entries.
KIMFF recognises film as a powerful medium for sharing ideas and driving home relevant messages. We like to think that the festival, over its fourteen years of existence, has provided much needed exposure, nurtured and honed the skills of a generation of filmmakers who are exploring and documenting contemporary and cutting-edge issues and presenting a realistic picture of contemporary Nepal—a society in transition and at the crossroads.
While there has been an organic progression in narrative filmmaking—credit largely goes to the Oscar International College of Film Studies in Kathmandu—development in the documentary genre is lagging. A negligible number of documentaries from Nepal have made it to Film South Asia (FSA), the biennial festival of South Asian documentaries held in Kathmandu. Ekadeshma, a short film festival founded by filmmaker Abinash Bikram Shah mainly features fiction. A much sought-after screenwriter in Kathmandu’s film circles, Abinash’s debut film, For Those Who are About to Rock, about rival music bands, screened at an early edition of KIMFF. Several of his short films screened in later editions, with some winning prizes.
In 2013 Dinesh Palpalee’s Bal Krishna Sama overwhelmed audiences at KIMFF and did extremely well at Travelling KIMFF 2014. Told through the eyes of a young boy in far-western Nepal, the independent feature film examines the nuances of caste-based discrimination in rural Nepal. Punte ko Pangra, Butte Jama, The Contagious Apparitions of Dambarey Dendrite, Phota, and Departures recently screened at KIMFF 2014 are proofs that Nepal’s talented crop of young filmmakers do not suffer from a shortage of ideas and tales to tell.
The development of the documentary, however, is a different story.
While there are a handful of working documentary filmmakers in Nepal, such as Kesang Tsetan, whose documentaries—We Homes Chaps, On the Road with the Red God: Macchendranath, In Search of the Riyal, The Desert Eats Us, Saving Dolma, and Who Will Be a Gurkha—have received national and international attention, there are hundreds of aspiring documentary filmmakers eager to tell their stories to the world but they lack the training, the funding and the exposure to be able to craft a film like Gurkha.
On an average, KIMFF receives 50 films in Nepal Panorama, a section started in 2007 to showcase Nepali films and filmmakers. Yet, selecting even half a dozen documentaries in this category is difficult. As with Sunakali, there are potentially compelling stories, beautiful locations, and amazing access to subjects. However, the lack of resources, training and exposure, with sometimes a resistance to learn, results in incomplete, sometimes clumsy, half-baked initiatives, posing as documentaries.
Nepal’s film industry is nascent. There are few film schools; however, the focus is on narrative filmmaking, as that is seen as the more lucrative path. Various NGOS, including Himal Association, the organisers of KIMFF, have, in collaboration with international filmmakers/ trainers, organised several one-off documentary workshops. These are too few and far between to actually leave a lasting impact on the community of aspiring filmmakers in Nepal.
Unlike in other countries, there is a lack of funding in Nepal, to which filmmakers can apply to, with their own ideas. Documentary filmmakers often rely on the donor community to provide funds for documentaries. This often dictates the tone of these films, making them come across as propaganda rather than independent films with their own perspective and voice.
Over the years, Himal Association, with KIMFF, has tried to champion the best of Nepal’s documentary filmmakers and projects. We have also been taking note of all that is lacking in Nepal to truly develop the documentary community. We feel that it is time to take the next step and become proactive in filling in the gaps that we know exist so that filmmakers in Nepal have a chance to bring their rich stories, voices and perspectives on issues pertinent to the country.
Finally, to sustain the development of documentary films, the community itself needs a space of its own, where filmmakers can share ideas and learn together. Because documentary filmmaking is not seen as a viable profession or often is seen as only an offshoot of news, makers have not come together to learn from one another or to push the field of documentary in Nepal to the next level.
Kesang Tseten is one filmmaker who is consistently trying. The winner of several awards at KIMFF, both in the international competitive category and the Audience Award, his documentaries speak of research, artistic vision, and a compelling story. I look forward to his forthcoming project, a documentary about Dor Bahadur Bista, a celebrated anthropologist and author of Fatalism and Development, who disappeared nineteen years ago. The film is Kesang’s take on the mystery surrounding the anthropologist’s disappearance and the legacy that he has left behind.