The Importance of Being Idyll
Despite a nascent democratic culture, Bhutanese filmmakers face multiple challenges in their attempts to capture ‘life at the crossroads’
Two years ago, while serving on the jury of the Beskop Tshechu (Bioscope Festival) 2011, the first international festival of documentary and short films held in Thimphu, I met Ugyen Wangdi, the pioneering documentary filmmaker in Bhutan. Half-jokingly – and paraphrasing Werner Herzog – he'd declared that "independent film is a myth. Films are dependent on money and a distribution system. Here there is neither. We may be the few idealists around struggling to make an impact which nobody takes seriously."
Wangdi should know. He graduated from the Film & Television Institute of India, Pune, in 1984 but has not been able to make more than a handful of independent documentaries despite the fact that his films have received many awards at international festivals. To earn a living, he works as a production coordinator for foreign television crews, and also runs his own travel agency. "In Bhutan, audiences flock in large numbers to see mainstream movies but remain unaware of other genres such as documentaries and short fiction. Cinema halls are allowed to screen only Bhutanese feature films, most of which are Bollywood imitations. They are so popular that movie halls in the capital are booked till the following year for releases; villages and towns outside Thimphu wait excitedly for those films to do the rounds. But for short filmmakers there are many constraints: no grants or recognition; no regular venues for screenings, no film festivals. All this can be disheartening for new entrants in the field."
Yet it seems that things are changing, albeit slowly, thanks to the efforts of a few filmmakers, artists and other volunteers who staged the second edition of the Beskop Tshechu from 5-10 September in Thimphu. Launched in celebration of the 'historic' royal wedding in 2011, the festival's second installment consisted of five days of film screenings, all of which were free and open to the public.
Eleven films (four documentaries, four fiction shorts and three animation videos) were showcased across three competitive categories open to Bhutanese productions. A special category paid tribute to Bhutanese classics such as Ugyen Wangdi's Yi Khel Gi Kawa (Price of A Letter, 2004). Wangdi's documentary follows 49 year-old Ugen Tenzin, a postal runner for 26 years, who walks for twelve to fifteen days every month to deliver letters, be it winter when the route is snow bound, or mid-summer when the monsoons lash out. Despite the odds, the risk involved, the tiring ascents and descents of high mountains and valleys, Ugen will continue until retirement. He has experienced life both in the bustling city of Thimphu and his quiet village, Lingshi, located at a height of 12,000 ft. Given the choice, it's home that's best, even if it takes four days to get there.
Yi Khel Gi Kawa is a sequel to Yonten Gi Kawa (Price of Knowledge, 1998) which was also the first documentary made in the country. Supported by a grant from the Jan Vrijman Fund, the film was shot over eight months to capture the simple life of 11-year-old Sherab Dorji at home and school. Ugyen Wangdi says, "The film was intended for city-dwelling children, including my own, to show them the hard life these people live. Sherab and the other children of his village walk three hours to school every day. Yet despite this, there is a sense of belonging and hope."
Apart from the Bhutanese selection 15 foreign films, from Hong Kong, India, Iran and Japan were screened. Sessions with visiting jury members included a six day workshop on home-made animation by Aditi Chitre (India), a lecture on film appreciation by Arun Gupta (India) and a session by Delphine Jeanneret (Switzerland) on how international festivals select films. Post-screening discussions were also worked into the schedule so as to make the festival more interactive. The festival was funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Bhutan, while the awards were sponsored by several government and non-government agencies.
"We really hope a regular festival will be the spark needed to ignite a homegrown independent short film industry," says Dechen Roder, one of the key organisers. "Young Bhutanese filmmakers are just waiting for a platform to unleash their vision and energies. It is deeply fulfilling to know that the announcement of the Beskop Tshechu in 2011 motivated two aspiring filmmakers to go out and make The Little Rockstar and Before Happiness for the 2013 competition."
The Little Rockstar by Solly Dorjee is about a young boy who is passionate about rock music. When he finally gets to touch a real guitar, a tug of war ensues between his love for the instrument and the need to study for his final exams. Most Bhutanese shorts carry a message, with the subtext here being the importance of education for tackling unemployment in Bhutan. No melodrama, no overacting, no complex plotting. Indeed, most of the protagonists in Bhutanese shorts are non-professionals, and do an incredible job.
Before Happiness by Tandy Norvu explains Buddhist principles through a man's daily activities, revealing the differences between the ordinary and the profound. Tandy Norvu also has a degree in civil engineering, and other than film making he also enjoys sketching and writing. Speaking before an appreciative audience, Norvu revealed, "I shot the film entirely in my home, and spent only Nu.50 (USD 0.79) on it to buy DVDs."
Short films and documentaries are unique genres allowing filmmakers to approach storytelling, analysis and personal expression with alternative and experimental methods. Continues Roder: "While they rarely promise financial returns, short films provide a platform for filmmakers to express themselves without the burden of profit or commercialization. The resulting work therefore comes more sincerely from the filmmaker's heart."
Roder herself has been directing, producing and editing documentaries and short films since 2004. She has also taught video editing at the International Academy of Film and TV in the Philippines. Her recent work An Original Photocopy of Happiness is about a 16 year old girl who goes looking for her father, whom she has never met, and whose identity her mother will never reveal. Roder combines elements of documentary and fiction in an engaging way to explore the issue of guardianship in Bhutan and how it discriminates against women. Like other filmmakers in her home country, she usually makes documentaries with the help of funds from international organizations such as UNICEF-Bhutan and the Youth Development Fund of Bhutan. From her perspective, the documentary genre is "a social tool to share messages, frame small stories and highlight incidents which normally would be overshadowed by something else."
Using video to explore 'real' issues can, however, be difficult. Trained at the Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communication, Pune, Kunzang Choki eventually chose to open a bookshop due to the lack of any sustainable opportunities for independent filmmaking. She says: "Personally I kind of like watching documentaries, but it's hard to make them here because many issues can be sensitive. There is no line as such to demarcate subjects that would be interesting as well as uncontroversial. To add to the difficulties, people you interview are also camera shy, unlike actors who have practiced their actions and lines."
Kesang Chuki Dorjee, TV anchor, filmmaker and fellow jury member at Beskop Tshechu 2011, lists other problems. "With Bhutan now a democratic constitutional monarchy, the importance and impact of the media is growing. Yet it is a difficult career choice, especially for women, because of the unpredictable working hours. Most people still prefer the security and prestige of working in the civil service or corporate organizations."
Although journalism and television are beginning to attract new entrants, documentary and short film making are still not considered suitable career options. Ugyen Wangdi says: "My own children said they don't want to take up my profession because it does not bring in any money. We need to face up to this reality. Newspapers are able to survive because of the government. The government provides a significant advertisement budget to support the media. Some newspapers open only to survive on it."
One of the few women in the profession, Kesang Chuki is hopeful that things will soon change for the better. "Exposure and education in institutions outside the country have led to several thoughtful filmmakers exploring the creative and artistic aspects of the medium. The other challenge is the absence of a regular platform to showcase such works. With the introduction of more TV broadcast stations, we hope there will be a bigger demand for quality documentaries and short films."
Her own work has centred largely on the challenges the new democracy is facing. To encourage active participation by women in politics, decision making and governance, she is working on a documentary titled La! Aum Lyonchen (Yes! Madam Prime Minister). Produced with the hope of inspiring the political aspirations of women in Bhutan, La! Aum Lyonchen features female politicians from Denmark, which like Bhutan, is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. Currently however, less than 14% of seats in Bhutan's parliament are occupied by women, and women constituted less than 5% of elected local leaders in the first local government elections of June 2011.
Kesang Chuki has over 10 films to her credit, the notable ones being Nangi Aums to Go-thrips (Housewives to Leaders, 2011), which explores the cultural and social perceptions that inhibit the participation of women in public life, and A Young Democracy (2008), which follows the campaigns of two candidates in the first ever democratic election in Bhutan.
Art for politics' sake?
In 2013 it has been possible to observe a distinct trend among the short fiction entries from Bhutan. The majority were obviously intended to invoke change or create awareness around different social and community issues. The organisers first considered creating a separate section for these 'advocacy videos', but then decided against categorizing the filmmakers' approaches. Roder explains: "Good story-telling is good story-telling, regardless of the approach and intention. And in essence, all films advocate something—whether it is an emotion, a cause, a change, or a reflection. So here it is – a collection of short fiction films, with compelling stories and approaches that are unique and cinematic, and at times even experimental. A set of short films deeply rooted in a Bhutanese context and understanding of self, culture and community."
Although stellite television and the internet were only allowed into Bhutan as recently as 1999, they have contributed substantially to the rapid changes in society. The decision to replace the absolute monarchy with an elected assembly was made in 2005, and two years later King Jigme Khesar declared: "We no longer live in a small hidden kingdom. We are very much a part of this new globalised world. At the end of the day, what it will always come down to is – how can Bhutan stand on her own feet? How can we make a good living? How can Bhutan compete with other nations as equals? It is no longer enough to say, 'I am the best in Bhutan.' You have to be the best wherever you go in the world."
In the face of new challenges and questions, the people of Bhutan are being forced to re-define what 'making a good living' entails. In a country where traditional dress, language and architecture are compulsory, how does one 'modernise' without losing one's ideals?
Ugyen Wangdi says: "Moving away from an agrarian to a consumer society has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots and is the greatest challenge to GNH." Wangdi explains: "When we were agrarian, a rich farmer would simply have a few more cows and yaks than the ordinary farmer and that was it. Also, GNH was more achievable due to a strong Buddhist psyche. But with the coming of satellite television, there is more consumerism. After watching TV for the first time, a woman working on a farm said everyone on TV looks so beautiful. Beauty salons and shops selling cars, electronics, garments and cosmetics have increased in number after the advent of cable TV. Banks have seen a sharp increase in loans. We are moving ahead at an alarming speed. Our age-old values are disappearing sooner than we could have imagined. I have documented village customs and traditions which are long gone. Having captured that time, I feel this acute sense of being on a roller coaster."
Today, capturing 'life at the crossroads' is a recurring theme in many of the documentaries and short films coming out of Bhutan. Many of the filmmakers are under 30 and self taught, working on shoestring budgets with the help of friends and family. Tashi Gyeltshen worked as a journalist before moving into films. He wrote and directed his debut film Girl With a Red Sky with funds from UNICEF, worked as an assistant director in a film production company in Bangkok for a few months, and is currently planning his first feature. His most popular film, A Forgotten Story, is a poignant six minute short about a jamjee (traditional kettle) being replaced by a modern and more glamorous teapot. The film screened at the Beskop Tshechu 2011 and has travelled to festivals in Canada and Hungary.
Pema Tshering is a member of the Beskop Tshechu team. A freelance artist and illustrator by profession, he also makes short films. The most notable of these is Sound of Time, a four minute experimental short on a man's quest to immerse himself in a pure and fleeting moment of peace away from the din of the city.
Sonam Dorji is the Director of the Music of Bhutan Research Center. A master musician, vocalist, and composer who plays several instruments native to Bhutan and India, he started making films to document the rich musical traditions of his country. His documentary King of Music was in the competition at Beskop Tshechu 2013. Dorji says: "I found archiving very effective in keeping our culture alive. I believe practitioners and tradition keepers from the past are the main sources of authenticity. I decided to make short films to preserve and promote cultural identity in the country. Racing against time and globalization, it is crucial that we video tape as much as we can. My documentary King of Music records interviews with thirty surviving master musicians from the court of the third king of Bhutan, the late Jigme Dorji Wangchuk."
Thirty-five-year-old Karchung Dorji has a similar story. "I'm a teacher by profession, and filmmaking is my passion. I've worked on some education related shorts. We and our Dress came about through a global movement programme called Design for Change. The film did not involve much finance but the little I had to spend was from my own pocket."
Jigme Lhendup whose Re-awakening was also in competition has a somewhat different story. "I have always been interested in short stories – writing them, reading them. My elder brother taught me how to write scripts. Way back in 2007, I put some of my stories together and developed my first script, titled 'Journey'. I decided to improve it by asking feedback from the people close to me. More than a year later, I sold the rights to a Canadian filmmaker and artist. He changed the name to Dancing on the World. The whole project is still under pre-production. Initially I trained myself by referring to books and watching tutorial videos. Since I studied computer science, it was easy for me to learn digital editing. In 2011, the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources sponsored me for a certificate course in filmmaking at the International Academy of Film and Television, Cebu, Philippines."
Thirty-eight-year-old Karma Gyaltshen speaks in a similar vein. "First, I underwent a short training in audio-video editing and 2D animation in Kolkata followed by some workshops in scriptwriting and film-making. Then I set up a small home-based office and worked on a few government projects." He went on to produce a feature film, several documentaries, a docu-drama and many animation shorts. Gyaltshen's competition entry My Paralympic Dream has been independently produced by him using his own resources. It tells the story of an abandoned child who has survived a disability and overcome insurmountable challenges. He determinedly pursues his passion and now makes beautiful wood carvings with his feet. Gyaltshen says modestly: "I'm still learning and have a long way to go. This is my dream profession and I'm determined to pursue it further and make some wonderful films in the coming years."
The organisers do not see their role coming to an end with the conclusion of the festival. Pema Tshering elaborates: "After the screenings in Thimphu, the festival will travel to other parts of the country – to schools and film theatres. This way we hope to nurture a new viewing culture in Bhutan and shape a new understanding, interest and appreciation for meaningful stories and films."
Roder adds: "We desperately need to create a common ground for non-commercial Bhutanese filmmakers to meet, discuss and learn from each other. We hope that the Beskop Tshechu 2013 will help us by encouraging and promoting through awards, opportunities and recognition. We would also like to play a significant role in cultural exchanges with other countries."
While short film making in Bhutan is, at last, finding its own voice, with increasing numbers of new filmmakers turning to documentary and short fiction as creative forms of expression, the movement is happening largely without comment in the region. Thimphu remains at the edge of the Southasian cinematic map, and it is unlikely that the works of filmmakers from Bhutan will play to packed theatres in Chennai or Lahore anytime soon. But as the government seeks stronger ties with the rest of the region and young Bhutanese continue to study and travel abroad and grapple with an array of new democratic and technological innovations at home, now is the time for Bhutan's filmmakers to step into the role of documenting and critiquing 'life at the crossroads'.
~This article was first published in our September 2013 print quarterly.
Aletta Andre on Bhutan's 2013 elections and the struggle of stateless Lhotshampas. (October 2013)
Reena Mohan on the challenges faced by filmamakers in Bhutan. (September 2013)
T P Mishra on resettlement and naturalization for Bhutan's Lhotshampas. (January 2015)
Dawa Gyelmo on how collection of a fungus known as cordyceps, or 'fungus gold', generates both cash and controversy. (February 2016)
A short story from Bhutan by Gopilal Acharya. (September 2016)