Nepal – as Seen in Movies

BY BINAYA SUBEDI
Jun 23, 2010

One Nepali based in the US discovers a new medium through which he learns more about his diverse and bewildering homeland – film.

 

The film Malaamee (The Funeral) in which male villagers forbid women from carrying a dead body of a village worker who was to be buried, reflects on peculiar yet critical dilemmas faced by those in rural Nepal.

The film Malaamee (The Funeral) in which male villagers forbid women from carrying a dead body of a village worker who was to be buried, reflects on peculiar yet critical dilemmas faced by those in rural Nepal.

Photo credit: TNFF


Visuals can provide an emotionally convincing way of telling personal stories. Although works of fiction and autobiographies create a sense of urgency in different ways, documentaries let us visualise issues in a realistic way. The incredible power of the films at the Toronto Nepali Film Festival (TNFF) demonstrated how Nepal can be seen differently through films. For many of us, it was an urgent reminder that Nepali people indeed have been making films and how such films continue to be marginalized in mainstream North American or European settings. It is by attending the festival that I gained a new understanding of Nepal and what it means to affiliate with Nepali social issues. This includes the nature of social problems that exists and how people are attempting to address it in various ways.

As a person of Nepali descent educated in Nepal, this was the first time I saw a stunning array of films that told stories through fictionalised narratives, documentaries and well-developed animated segments. The films reminded me that our understanding of Nepal remains limited even though we may have been born or raised in Nepal, or that we may periodically travel there; and that (like any country) Nepal is ethnically diverse, geographically complex and too varied to be reduced to a category or label. In other words, the organisers of the festival wanted us to rethink what we know about Nepal. We were often reminded through the films that although Nepal is visually a beautiful country (scenic postcards, glossy travel brochures, etc.) and culturally rich, it is also a land of dire economic poverty where a majority of the population finds it difficult to make ends meet each day.

What was thought-provoking about the films was the fact that they not only addressed how people in power can or continue to misuse power, but also tackled questions of gender and how it is connected to poverty and politics. The lack of formal educational prospects, along with the lack of access to economic and political opportunities, give women a subservient and less desirable position in society.

We also learn from the films how both governmental and Maoist forces have (wrongly) used the question of women’s marginalization as a way to claim the superiority of their political agenda. As the films demonstrate, women continue to speak out and march on the streets to claim their rights; yet, women are often not heard by people in power. The films help us understand how gender remains marginalised in Nepali political debates and discussions on national development. Although women are clearly oppressed within various structures in Nepal, the films simultaneously show us how women are active in political debates and continue to critique masculine approaches to national citizenship.

Like anywhere else in the world, Nepal is going through social, political and economic transitions. When we think of Nepal, we can’t avoid talking about the lack of access to roads and the challenges this creates for a majority of the Nepali population. “We Corner People” explored labour issues (building a much-needed narrow bridge across two hilly regions) and detailed the complex tension within a village that had historically remained Buddhist and how the arrival of Christianity changed village social-cultural dynamics. The film helped me see how local communities are learning to balance their cultural roots and are also embracing (in a complex way) new cultures or religions. The tension over local customs was also talked about in the film “Malaamee” (“The Funeral”) in which male villagers forbid women from carrying a dead body of a village worker who was to be buried. A critical issue many of the films addressed was the migration of men from rural areas to cities and to foreign countries, and how this has created particular dilemmas in rural Nepal. The absence of youth leaves a void within communities and the burden often shifts onto women to develop a sense of community in villages.

We need to find new ways of connecting with Nepal so that it can bring about social change and benefit  marginalised   people.

Upon leaving the festival, I found myself thinking about the difficult challenges that Nepal faces in the future but was also reminded on how positive changes were taking place in the country. Although tourism-related travel to Nepal can fulfill personal needs, it has severe limitations on addressing issues of social change, since it leaves our economic privileges intact, and we simply become part of the status quo. I was reminded throughout the films that we need to find new ways of connecting with Nepal so that it can bring about social change and benefit marginalised people.

 

This article was previously published in V.E.N.T! Magazine.