Bringing Indigenous Voices to the Screen

IMG_3485Are you planning to attend the documentary film festival this coming spring?

Durham’s Full Frame festival promises to be better than ever, but I’m referring to the 9th Nepal International Indigenous Film Festival, which opens in Kathmandu on March 3.

Last year, about 20,000 people gathered for four days along Kathmandu’s Exhibition Road to watch 48 films from 18 countries. Selected from more than 100 entries, the films ranged from full-length features to short documentaries, animations and music videos. All  depicted indigenous communities; 12 were produced here in Nepal.

FullSizeRender 337The festival is part of a larger effort to help filmmakers from overlooked ethnic groups share their stories. On Tuesday, I spent several hours with some of them.

Nabin Subba, the group’s leader, shown here, produced and directed Numafung, a feature film screened at several international festivals. A decade ago, he and several friends established the Indigenous Film Archive (IFA), a nonprofit organization that provides training, rents equipment and organizes events where young filmmakers can interact. They’ve reached out especially to women filmmakers, whose recent short films explore topics such as divorce in the Gurung community or how Limbu girls learn weaving.

IMG_3490You have to climb four flights of stairs to reach IFA’s small office, where you remove your shoes at the door and then hope the electricity stays on. Sanjog Laaphaa Magar, shown here at one of the editing computers, helps run the office and manage the annual festival. He also organizes a growing library of local and international films.

IMG_3483As in our own country, most Nepalis prefer big-budget films with lots of action and melodrama. Working on a shoestring with a less popular format among marginalized groups in one of the world’s poorest countries, Nabin and Sanjog say it’s a struggle to keep IFA going and still produce their own work. Yet they push forward, as with a new project that will show how indigenous groups suffered the most casualties in the recent earthquake yet received relatively little of the subsequent international aid.

They are eager to expand their ties with documentary filmmakers in the United States and other parts of the world. If Full Frame, the Center for Documentary Studies, or others with appropriate expertise could come to Nepal to provide free workshops, for instance, they’d welcome the assistance.

If anyone reading this is interested, please contact me offline ( or Nabin (; he speaks excellent English) to follow up, or forward this story to someone you know. These folks are doing amazing work and they need some help.


Shopping Adventures in Kathmandu

image imageIf your idea of adventurous shopping involves a local mall, you need to broaden your horizons and come to Kathmandu.

With the exception of small neighborhood shops that resemble bodegas, almost all of the shops here in Nepal’s capital specialize in jewelry, kitchen goods or something else. imageThey’re conveniently bunched together, with spice shops here, shoes there and books around the corner.

Merchants display their goods not only in shops, but outside of temples and on corners. Narrow streets lead to even narrower alleys lined with bangles, televisions, office supplies and beads. Motorcycles and rickshaws squeeze by. Horns blare. Fumes fill the air.

imageSome shops have curious specialties, like nose pins or unlocking iPhones. Others proudly display names such as “Swastik Plaza.” image

On Monday, Champa and I joined our niece-in-law, Bindu, on a shopping trip that began on New Road and wound through Indra Chowk and other bazaars. imageWe stopped at a jewelry store to repair a ring, a kitchen store to buy metal plates and a hat store for a Nike cap. We climbed two flights up an insanely narrow staircase to an attic stuffed with fabric. While there, I kept thinking to myself, “Please, don’t let there be another earthquake now.”

imageAlong the way, we visited a temple and snacked on momos, samosas and cold drinks. Then we drove across town to one of Kathmandu’s few department stores, Bhat-Bateni, where Bindu bought some kitchen appliances and we bought decorative shopping bags made from rice paper. imageimageFinally, we drove to visit Kumar, a tailor who works near our nephew’s office, to pick up a shirt I’d ordered two days earlier — $14.50, custom-made.

By the time we reached home, after 7 p.m., the electricity was already cut off, so we turned on a battery lamp and collapsed on sofas, our purchases strewn around us, waiting to be unpacked the next morning. Our day was a success. We’d shopped ’til we dropped.

Pockets of Insight

imageWhat’s in your wallet?

Mine is now filled with Nepalese rupees — thousands of rupees! Since the exchange rate is about 105 rupees for one U.S. dollar, however, that’s less impressive than it may sound. Back when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the late 1970s, the exchange rate was 12 rupees per dollar. Now, exchanging dollars can mean receiving a stack of money as thick as a brick.

imageThe appearance of Nepal’s currency has changed, too. No longer does it feature the king’s portrait.  Since the royal family was removed from power, the money highlights Nepal’s yaks, rhinos, elephants, tigers and other animals, and, of course, Mount Everest. The coins have evolved as well.

My wallet also holds my bank debit card, which I used to obtain rupees at a local ATM in less than two minutes, a transaction that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. In addition, I have a Visa card that enables me to make foreign purchases without an extra fee, although credit cards remain less common here than back home.image

My pants pockets contain other insights into Nepal. I carry tissues in case I need to wipe my nose or other parts of my body. imageSimilarly, I have a small medicine bottle that contains diarrhea medicine, if needed, along with Tylenol and vitamins.

imageA small flashlight is invaluable when electricity disappears, as it does regularly due to planned “load shedding” across Kathmandu’s neighborhoods.

imageAnd since air pollution here is even worse than when I visited five years ago and got a throat infection just from breathing, I carry a mask and asthma inhaler. Many Nepalis now wear masks as well. (Fortunately, I’ve barely needed the inhaler so far.)

imageNot surprisingly, I’ve brought jeans with enough space to accommodate everything I’m carrying. However, we’ve been eating so well that I may need to start spending those rupees faster to give myself more room.

Falgunanda’s Legacy

FullSizeRender 275Have you ever heard of Falgunanda? His name is all but unknown to Westerners, even those who have visited Nepal. For that matter, many Nepalis have never heard of him, either. But if you are a member of one of the traditional Kirati ethnic groups of eastern Nepal — the Limbus, Rais and others — there’s a good chance you worship in front of his photo.

Champa is a Limbu, from the Dewan clan, so we’ve known for several years of the growing interest among Kiratis in this religious leader, born in 1885, who revived traditional Kirati cultural practices and challenged Nepal’s dominant Hinduism. Today, many Limbus and others have embraced Falgunanda, for both religious reasons and to assert their ethnic identity. It’s part of a movement among Nepal’s indigenous peoples to reclaim their history and demand a fairer share of the country’s resources. Our nephew, Shankar Limbu, with whom we are staying, has been a leader of this effort and has spoken about it at the United Nations and other venues.

FullSizeRender 282On Friday, we hiked with Shankar to Kirat Manghim, a traditional Kirati temple in Sankha Devi Village on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley. FullSizeRender 281Along the way, we passed some of the countless Hindu temples, like the white one shown here, which are so omnipresent in Nepal. Buddhist temples are also common, and there are a growing number of mosques and churches as well. However, here in the valley there are few temples especially for Limbus such as Champa and Shankar.

FullSizeRender 278Visiting this one was worth the largely uphill walk of nearly two hours in late-summer heat. The two main structures and prayer flags, shown above, were modest in size and decoration. But they provided a peaceful oasis, and the friendly caretakers were quick to offer chairs and lemongrass tea to help us recover from our ascent.

The main temple features bells and a drum on the outside and an altar and photo of Falgunanda on the inside. FullSizeRender 317We removed our hiking shoes before entering, made an offering and then received tikas on our foreheads as we exited. We also signed the guest registry, with my own signature, in English, now standing out among pages of Nepali signatures. (Yes, I know how to write my name in Nepali, but it was fun to highlight my status as one of the few Westerners to ever visit.)

Nepal’s indigenous people’s movement resembles similar campaigns in other parts of the world, from Indian peoples in Latin America to tribal groups in East Asia. One can also make interesting comparisons with our own country. It’s an important effort, long overdue, and we’re proud of Shankar and his colleagues for what they are doing. We think Falgunanda would be proud, too.

The Earthquake’s Aftermath

FullSizeRender 280 FullSizeRender 288You don’t have to look hard to find signs of the terrible earthquake that rocked Nepal on April 25, claiming more than 9,000 lives and injuring more than 23,000 other people. Both of these buildings in the Lubhu neighborhood of the Kathmandu Valley, where we hiked on Friday afternoon, suffered devastating damage and remain in rubble. People died here.

Even more people died in the nearby city of Bhaktapur, which shares the traditional brick architecture that proved so unstable in the quake. Bhaktapur is a World Heritage site and beloved tourist destination, with elegant temples and sculpted windows, but much of it was destroyed. Likewise, many towns and villages even closer to the epicenter are still struggling to rebuild, their situation worsened by Nepal’s ongoing political dysfunction.

FullSizeRender 276What’s striking for a visitor arriving five months after the disaster, though, is how the Kathmandu Valley simultaneously continues to boom and expand. I lived here for more than a year in the late 1970s and remember bicycling along idyllic fields and paths in neighborhoods now crammed with houses, shops, vehicles and pollution. The photo shows what has become a common sight: green fields being replaced by cement homes. Indeed, Champa and I are staying in a house that didn’t exist a few years ago, one of many transforming the local landscape. These newer structures generally fared better in the earthquake, although many did suffer some damage.

On Thursday afternoon, we walked to a modern shopping complex that sells everything from ready-made Indian food to Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, along with Western fashions, appliances and whiskey. FullSizeRender 274I rode up several escalators to buy a memory stick for my laptop — much cheaper than at Best Buy, thanks — and passed a display for luxury condominiums. (Let me pause: Luxury condominiums in Kathmandu. Wow.) Just down the road, these construction vehicles were finishing up another day’s work on a bridge.

I’m reluctant to draw any conclusions about the earthquake until we’ve visited other parts of the country and talked with more people. Despite the enormous destruction and human toll, however, it does seem the Kathmandu Valley is continuing to build and grow, for better or worse, regardless of what’s happening elsewhere.

We’ll be visiting some of those other places soon. But first, stay tuned for a visit to a fascinating temple rarely seen by Westerners. If you have any reactions to what I’m posting, I encourage you to share your thoughts here.

Little Gas, Lots of Charm

A gunman just shot up a school in Oregon, Hurricane Joaquin is bearing down on the East Coast and Donald Trump is still running for president, but you wouldn’t know any of that here in Kathmandu. FullSizeRender 272The big news since we arrived three days ago has been India’s blockade of gasoline supplies into Nepal.

This gas station and others are usually busy with customers. Since Thursday, however, the Nepalese government has banned petrol sales to private vehicles, accelerating a local sense of crisis. A day earlier, we passed hundreds of motorcyclists waiting in a line stretching across several city blocks. Cars waited in similar lines, often to no avail.

India is acting in support of Nepalis of Indian descent and others who have been protesting what they consider unfair representation in the country’s new constitution, which the major political parties recently adopted after years of dispute. Since almost all of Nepal’s fuel passes through India, the blockade was immediately disruptive, including to our own travel plans. As I write this, there are tentative reports of a resolution. We’ll see what happens.

FullSizeRender 277Personally, I’ve been more distracted by the simple pleasures of Nepal, which have surrounded us since we arrived. Champa and I went out to dinner with our nephew and his wife, for instance, and enjoyed local delicacies such as these delicious momos, or dumplings. The bill for the four of us, with drinks, was less than $13. FullSizeRender 283As we took a long walk on Friday afternoon, far from the tourist areas, we passed children playing next to temples, IMG_3449women working in lush wheat fields, ducks waddling across the street and students with ties and backpacks returning home from school.

I’ve also been charmed by the signs on Nepal’s local shops, which continue to use English in unexpected ways. (“Fooding and lodging” remains a standard.) FullSizeRender 279The sign for this tattoo parlor appeals to “ladies and gents.” Nearby was a shop selling Mountain Dew, which is manufactured locally and called “Dew” by everyone. FullSizeRender 289We also passed this Hindu swastika on someone’s house — not unusual in Nepal, but still a reminder that we’re no longer home.

We’ve seen lots of evidence of the April earthquake, which will be the subject of my next post. If you have reactions or comments, please share them here!