Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

Notes from the Festival

In 18 February, Sri Mustangi Rajasaheb Jigme Parbal Bista flagged off Film Himalaya 1994, a three-day-festival of documentaries and films at a refreshingly brief and dignified inauguration, followed by the screening of the film Baraka.

This was Baraka´s Asia premiere — and there were other firsts as well. This was decidedly the first festival of films on the Himalaya and its peoples; probably the first in the region to focus almost exclusively on documentaries; and certainly, the first that showed more than token respect for the inhabitants of the Himalayan region.

The fare was as large as it was varied. Chosen by a Kathmandu-based selection panel of locals and expatriates, the films and documentaries ranged over subjects as diverse as development, anthropology, ethnography, religion, ecology and environment, tourism, wildlife, spiritualism, culture, architecture, medicine and history. There were fikns-on-the-making-of-films, others that were tainted with Hollywood hype, and others that were plain down home entertainment.

Cobbled together with a shoestring budget of U$ 8000, a pittance as festivals go,and screened back-to-back in two small theatres at the Russian Cultural Centre in Kahtmandu, Film Himalaya 1994 was carried off with elan and precision, leaving little post-festival acrimony in its wake.

Pyrotechnic Cinema
Baraka, producer Marg Magid son´s larger-than-life panorama of the human condition, began appropriately enough with images of the Himalaya—the Mount Everest panorama, the ´eyes´ of Swayambhu, and shrouded shapes swaying in and out of a foggy Bhaktapur morning. The film is segmented in three parts, the first consisting of spiritual iconography, temples, monasteries and holymen(Baraka,inSufi,meansthebreath of life). The second segment lays on a guided tour, of the wretched plight of modern man, military and industrial horrors, and the evils of modernity. The third segment a gain finds relief in images of natural beauty and celestial grandeur, showcasing cinematographer RonFricke´s prestidigtal skill with the camera.

Technically, the film is breathtaking, often carrying the viewer a way with Dali-esque portraits of burning oilfields in the Persian Gulf, or a heliborne panning of hundreds of junked B-52bombers parked in the Arizona desert (with Tibetan monastery horns droning an incongruous threnody on the soundtrack). One memorable sequence, showing a part of the Ramayana performed in Borobodur with dancers mimicking the monkey hordes of Hanuman, is filmed over a sea of brown arms and torsos, with the soundtrack setting up a slieet-of-sound gibbering.

Despite the absence of any commentary, Baraka is unabashedly propagandistic. Whilst maintaining a romantic perspective on the spiritual wealth of developing countries, the film remains ethnically stratified, ending up as an indictment of the southern hemisphere for its squalor and ignorance, apportioning the blame for mindless modernity and consumerism on the Chinese and Japanese, and on the rest of the Third World for environmental degradation, strife and poverty. Images of the North are restricted to a few anonymous shots of New York City traffic blurred by computerised time-lapse effect. While its audio-visual pyrotechnics are overwhelming, Baraka is a disappointment. The New York Times reviewer described it as a “visual poem”, but it is a troubled poem, not without its own crude symbolism: towards the end of the film the audience is treated to a close-up of a burning Varanasi corpse for several traumatic seconds before the cut to a breezy sky and scudding clouds. The time-lapse camera which creates interesting visuals of accelerated sunrises and storm clouds is overused on cityscapes inaham-fisted effort to portray the frantic pace of urban life. The sound-track, consisting of ethnic music beefed up with electronic effects, was often intrusive and boorish. The film closes with whirling dervishes and a recapitulation of the earlier spiritual themes.

Licking Honey
With the exception perhaps of the Chinese entry Dao Mao Zei, none of the other films of the festival attempted a canvas as large as Baraka, but many did make their point just as effectively. The first array of the festival was taken up with several small films. Catherine Vision played to a packed 50-seater auditorium (most of the tickets had been taken by Kathmandu´s Nepal Eye Hospital). Marchiak follows the story of Khamsiyar Tamang, a woman blinded by cataract who is carried to Kathmandu from far-flung Gurmu in a doko to under go eyesurgery. The film is delivered from becoming another sterile documentary on health and development by the presence of Dr. Sanduk Ruit, who performs the successful operation at the Nepal Eye Hospital, and who virtually requisitions the narration of the film, imbuing it with a loquacious warmth and spirit.

Interestingly, Himalayan Vision was one of the few festival films that also examined the after-effects of filmmaking on its subjects. Having regained her eyesight, Khamsiyar Tamang returns to her village, only to find herself alienated and maladjusted. She attempts to follow the film crew back to the city and it is only with some convincing that she finally settles back into her community.

Chugging up with Granny profiles the moribund railroad from Siliguri to Darjeeling. Produced by Ashok Raina, the film is presented with uninspired cinematography and and wooden commentary by Darjeeling historian Kumar Pradhan. However, Kathmandu´s audience seemed to take to Pradhan´s recitation of Darjeeling children´s ditties. Director Gautam Sonti´s Plastic Plastic records the efforts of the Mussoorie schools to raise local awareness and combat shop ping bag debris on the slopes. The gum-chewing students are themselves blissfully unaware that the film is funded by Colgate Palmolive (India) Ltd., a megacorp that contributes generously to widespread use of plastic products and packaging.

The Splendour of Garhwal and Roopkund, filmed and directed astutely by Victor Banerjee during the monsoon, provides images of unsurpassing beauty of the lush bugyals (meadows) of Kusli Kalyani softened by half-light and the rush of rain clouds. Viewers were also treated to some quaint vignettes of the bagpipe tradition in the western Himalaya. This lyrical portrait of Uttarakhand, however, is marred by a narrative and commentary as windy as the high meadows of Garhwal.

The second day opened with the festival´ spiecede resistance, Honey Hunters of Nepal, a fine ethrir graphically-sensitive work that riv is viewer interest. Filmmakers Eric valliandDianeSummers take us on a journey “somewhere” in Central Nepal, whore aquintetof intrepid Gurungs led by the 60-year-old Manilal risk life and limb by dangling over sheer cliffs to smoke out swarms of black bees from their hives. Their reward is a golden harvest of wild honey.

Honey Hunters, edited and produced seamlessly, with a rich if inappropriate soundtrack, celebrates the skill and daring of the generations of Gurung who, having shunned the drudgery of agriculture, run the gauntlet of the giant black swarms. The film was followed by The Making of Honey Hunters, which in rum celebrates the skill and daring of the crew that shot the film, offering self-conscious glimpses of the Westerners encumbered by hi-tech mountaineering impedimenta, dangling alongside the nimble-footed honey-hunters.

Co-director Summers, who introduced the film and answered questions after the screening, said the .location of Honey Hunters has been a closely-held secretal though Manilal was recently in Kathmandu for a cataract operation. Himalayan Vision for a honey hunter!

While Honey Hunters remains an expert and sympathetic ethnographic record, it tends to take an excessively fond look at the Gurung clan, reducing its members at times to quaint hobbits of Himalayan Middle-Earth. But patriarch Manilal is allowed the last word: holding out a gnarled palm dripping with honey, he repeats the old adage, “Jasle maha kardcha, usle hath chaatcha!” (He who draw honey, gets to lick the hand.)

Nyinbas and Ladakhis
Polyandry among Nyinba in thearid hills of Humla was the theme of the BBC/ National Geographic production, The Dragon Bride, Thefilm charts the ´travails´ of 15-year-old Tsering Kangzun, who is bom in the Year of the Dragon and is fated to marry four brothers in accordance with the customs of the community.

Constructed out of a series of interviews with the family and relatives of both Tsering Kangzum and her prospective husbands, the Nyinba community comes across as being perfectly at ease with polyandry, and this despite a subtext of disapproval from behind the lens. Articulate Nyinba cheerfully discuss everything about themselves, from matrimonial customs and rituals to — with many a lewd aside — the syndicated conjugal relations. Despite the obligatory plaints, perhaps more for the benefit of the Western filmmakers, Nyinba women seem not unaware of the advantages of having several breadwinners in the house.

Ever inquisitive, director Joanna Head´scamera renders adetailed account of the preparations for and the marriage of Tsering Kangzum. At one point, the crew is shooed out of a room by an irate nanny who screams “Why can´t you wait until I´ve finished?” as she paints the wal Is with clay. Elaborate costumes transform Nyinba from scrubby farmers into strutting mythical figures, and the groom´s company engages the bride´s household in a battle of riddles and song in order to win the bride. The documentary dwells overtly long on Tsering Kangzum´s tearful departure for her home — a normal enough leave-taking and perhaps de rigeur for any traditional bride — imbuing it exaggerated sense of tragedy at her polyandrous plight and imposing upon her a ´civilising´ monogamous sensibility.

Majan Garlinski, Martin Gaenzle and Albin Bieri put together Deva and Cinta, 127 minutes of stark footage on shamanic rites of Kulunge and Mehawang Rai of East Nepal. Opening on the night of the full moon of Baisakh, the film is laid out in two parts. In the first part {deva, divinity), libations are poured and blood sacrifices made. The second part rinte (meditation), records an all-night seance where demons and deities possess the body of the shaman and pronounce oracles through him.

Filmed in searing floodlight, with little commentary and no score, the documentary is almost minimalist, a style entirely suited to the objective of documentation. The virtually immobile camera and the live soundtrack of chanting and incessant drumming imparts to the documentary a dreamlike quality. The oracles are cryptic and the interlocutor from among the gathered villagers finds his own meanings within them.

The cinta ends with the symbolic despatch of a live lizard to the nether world across a bridge of stretched twine and exorcism of the spirits from the bodies of two afflicted villagers, a mother and daughter.
Another ethnographic film, but in an entirely different vein, was Jyapu: Industrious Productivity as a Lifestyle, which takes a 28-minute look at the indigenous farmers of Kathmandu Valley. Unlike other ethnographic portraits at Film Himalaya 1994, this 1981 documentary chooses to get down on its knees and look at the community through children. Kathmandu farmyards seem to have enough well-adjusted, snot-faced toddlers, going by Jyapu. Like Baraka, here too, there is no narration.

Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, based on the Norwegian Helena Norberg-Hodge´s book by the same name, makes for a chilling before/ after story on Ladakh. The Indian Government´s presumably well-intentioned construction of a highway into Ladakh has brought with it consumerism and the destruction of an entire, ancient way of life. The images of New Ladakh are frightening: trucks spewing smoke into the crisp mountain air, scrawny teenagers lounging about video parlours, exodus from the farms, and unemployment on the streets. But despite Norberg-Hodge´s injunction — she has been a longtime observer and ´visitng activist in Ladakha—on the pit falls of idealising traditional Ladakh, the film ends up doing just that. The Ladakh of yore, according to Ancient Futures, was a charmed place that knew no lack of medication or schools, no high death rates…

Two archival films deserve mention: one, Lowell Thomas´ garrulous Return to Shangri La, which somehow manages to encompass all of early 1970sNepal within just an hour of footage; and the other a silent film, First American Mission to Nepal, April 1947, taken before any motor road led to Kathmandu. The journey up the tortuous trail from Bhimphedi leads to a Kathmandu that is mired in the Rana times. It was appropriate that the film was introduced by Huta Ram Baidya, an old-timer agricultural engineer and Valley environmentalist who has seen Kathmandu develop and then disintigrate in front of his eyes.

Baidya provided commentary through the auditorium´s PA system as American Mission was being screened. His eerie voice-over boomed and echoed around the hall, lending an air of melancholy and nostalgia to the proceedings.

Then, there were the lot of mountaineering films, without which perhaps no Himalayan film festival can be complete. For its part, Film Himalaya 1994 chose to screen old classics like The Conquest of Everest, of the successful John L. Hunt team which put Tenzing and Hillary on top, as well as some recent films which tended to be more brash.

Spiritual Horizons

If themes of developent, culture, environment, mountaineering and anthropology were on the festival´s agenda, Himalayan spiritualism was certainly its leit motif. Anwar Jamal´s hard-hitting documentary on the Tehri Dam imbroglio in India, Call of the Bhagirathi, featuring the Ganga as the desecrated mother; On the Wings of Prayer, Siok Sian -Dorji´s compassionate rendering of the endangered Black Necked Cranes of Bhutan, which ritually circle over a monastery roof before setting off to their summer home in Tibet; and the search of there in camarion of Lama Tundu, the High Lama of Thame monastery, in Norman G. Dhyrenfurth´s Samsara — a Tibetan Tradition, set against the backdrop of the achingly beautiful mountains around the Khumbu and the Tasi Lapcha pass.

The search for spiritual peace was on as far back as 1937: the festival organisers even exhumed {with the help of USIS) a copy of (the first) Lost Horizon. Tourism in the Himalaya owes an old and deep debt to James Hilton´s book and Frank Capra´s film for the commodification of the region as an escapist paradise. Perceptions of the Tibetan plateau and its people were still foggy in the American mind when this film was made. “He looks like a Chinese, or a Mongolian, or something!” scream sa character describing the pilot who hijacks the aircraft to Shangri La. In 1937, they did not recognise Himalayans,

Disappointingly, and perhaps predictably enough, Hollywood´s earliest representation of a Buddhist Utopia merely resonates contemporaneous colonial and Christian missionary ideals — the High Lama of Shangri La is a European abbot and his concrete domain a paradigm of civilised living where the commode is indispensable for contemplating one´s navel.

Bringing us squarely down to earth after this foray into mythical Shangri La was Compassion in Exile, Mickey Lemle´s hard-hitting documentary on the Dalai Lama, Tibet, and the Chinese. Before there was time to catch ur breath, however, we were yanked back to Shangri La by In Search of Buddha, Paolo Brunato´s film on the filming of The Little Buddha. Brunato seeks to get spiritual mileage out of Bernardo Bertolucci´s musings of Buddhism. The film played to a packed house and nearly sparked off a riot for want of seats. It seemed to attract a starry-eyed audience that was thankfully absent during the rest of the festival.

The camera follows Bertolucci on his cinematic peregrinations as he confers with lamas and holds forth on dharma. Bolstering the documentary further are Tussaudean extras and members of the crew who play converted Westerners practising Buddhism in Nepal, Bhutan and the USA. Given the rumours that The Little Buddha is financially adrift, perhaps this d ocumentary was produced to market a more user-friendly brand of Buddhism before the real thing hits the theatres.

If one discounts Lost Horizon as being only of archaeological interest, then Dao Ma Zei (The Horse Thief) was the only feature film of the festival. Directed by Tien Zhuangzhuang, a “fifth generation filmmaker” of China, the movie follows the trials and tribulations of a Tibetan horse thief cast out by his community, and of the misfortunes that are subsequently visited upon his tribe and upon him. It is unlikely that there is another feature film on the Himalaya with similar power, depth and mastery of technique.

In more than one way, Dao Ma Zei stood apart from other films of the festival, and challenged the central theses of many. While Ancient Futures extolls the virtues of a Tibetan community´s traditions, Dao Ma Zei looks at the harshness of ostracism. The Tibet of Lost Horizon, a utopia of longevity and peace, is inverted into a bleak landscape of stark violence and immediate death. Barakn´s optimism that religion and spiritualism contain the answers to the problems raised by the degeneration of modern society is negated by the denouement of Dao Ma Zei, where the penitent exile, having futilely attempted to comeback to the fold, reverts and dies an outcaste in the wild and unforgiving land.

The vast stretches of the Tibetan plateau are filmed with skill and care, showing an intensely surreal landscape. Tien Zhuang zhuang also utilises circular motifs — prayer wheels, water wheels, circuits of the monastery, and Mani Rimdu dances — to good effect, although the religious iconography is over-exploited in creating images of horror.

From another perspective, however, Dao Ma Zei was not without its politics. Its acceptance must be tempered by the understanding that it is a discourse generated by the director as representative of a dominant race making a film about a subjugated race. This distance between the director and his subject(s) is evident in One sequence in the film, where the tribe of Tibetans stands on a hillock releasing little slips of white paper inscribed with prayers into the wind. As the swarm of paper rises in the air, cries of “La Gyalo!” (Victory to the Gods!) are heard. But there are other voices, too, in the soundtrack, crying “Bod Gyalo!” (Victory to Tibet!)

Film Himalaya 1994 was not only a festival of films. It was, at the same time, a festival of awareness. The exhiliration of the festival was overlaid by a deep pessimism and foreboding, a sense of denudation and degradation of the mountains and of the people living here. The last image which comes to mind, and which refuses to go away, is this: the American Lowell Thomas in Return to Shangri La, taking a lama affably by thearm, asking, “How many prayers are there in that wheel of yours?”

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