Photo: Screengrab from ‘The Next Guardian’ (2017)
Photo: Screengrab from ‘The Next Guardian’ (2017)

Screen Southasia: Q&A session for ‘The Next Guardian’

A conversation with the filmmaker Arun Bhattarai, director of ‘The Next Guardian’.

At Screen Southasia, we host monthly online screenings of compelling documentaries from the region, including Nepal, India, Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Tibet, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka. We present a diverse range of films, both classic and new, that showcase the unique cultures, histories and perspectives of Southasia. Screen Southasia is a partnership between Himal Southasian and Film Southasia. For updates on future screenings and Q&A sessions, sign up here

For our latest Screen Southasia Q and A session, recorded on 5 June 2023, we speak with Arun Bhattarai, co-director of the documentary film The Next Guardian – a love-filled portrait of a family in Bhutan.

Film synopsis: In a Himalayan village, Gyembo and Tashi, a brother and sister, lead a normal life as teenagers. They love soccer and their phones. Their father oversees a Buddhist temple that has been in the family for generations. He hopes his son, Gyembo, will one day take over his duties and leave his modern English-language school in favor of a monk school. In this thoughtful and tender portrait of a Bhutanese family, the generation gap is as large as their love for one another. Celibacy doesn't offer an enticing future to an adolescent boy, which Gyembo's father understands. Nonetheless, he still tries to convince his son that being a monk offers many advantages. Meanwhile, Tashi feels more like a boy than a girl, and dreams of a life as a pro soccer player. She wants to attend a soccer camp that would be the first step in being selected for the national team. Unfortunately, though happiness is high on the political agenda in Bhutan, not all wishes come true.

The full discussion is now available on YoutubeSoundcloudSpotify and Apple Podcasts.


This is a machine-generated transcript of the event and may contain inaccuracies. For exactness, please refer to the recording. 

Sana Amir: Thanks everybody for joining in. This is Screen Southasia and this weekend we screened a film from Bhutan The Next Guardian. Before we start, I would like our editor, Roman Gautam, to give a brief introduction about our Screen Southasia event.

Roman Gautam: I'll keep it very short and say some very important thank yous. Of course, Alok as always, thank you. Sana, thank you. And of course, the biggest thank you to everyone who's joining us and especially to Arun. What to say about this film, it's so sublimely shot, sublimely edited, sublimely told. It's one that really stays with you. It's one of those when it ends, I mean it ends in a beautiful way, but also ends. It felt so abrupt only because you really want to know what happened next. So I guess now we get a chance to find out what happened next. So I won't say anything more. Thank you all for joining us. I'll leave you with Alok and Sana to lead the way. 

Alok Adhikari: Thank you, Roman. I'd like to quickly introduce the filmmakers. Arun Bhattarai is joining us today, but this film is co-directed by Arun and Dorottya Zurbo. I'm going to go first with Dorottya. She is a documentary filmmaker and a university teacher from Hungary. The Next Guardian was her first feature documentary film. She graduated from the first edition of DocNomads Joint Masters for which she was awarded the Erasmus Mundus scholarship in Lisbon, Budapest and Brussels in 2014. She is also an honours graduate in film theory and history from ELTE, Budapest. In 2021 she has just received her DLA diploma from the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest where she is also a lecturer in the field of transmedia storytelling and experimental documentary.

She also completed her first directorial debut Easy Lessons, a feature-length documentary supported by the Incubator Program of the Hungarian National Film Fund. The film premiered at the Locarno Film Festival Critic's Week section in 2018 and participated in more than 40 international festivals (Sarajevo IFF, HotDocs, Camden IDFF, Thessaloniki IDF etc). 

Arun Bhattarai, this was also his first documentary film, The Next Guardian, which premiered in competition at IDFA in 2017. Since then, it has screened more than 40 international festivals and has had theatrical releases and broadcasted around the world. The film was developed in several international workshops and was supported by international film funds. His most recent documentary won 'The Asia Pitch' and was screened in NHK World TV and KBS Korea. He graduated from the first edition of Doc Nomads documentary film directing. His short documentary in development mountain man is about Bhutan's first glaciologist, which won the 'IF Then shorts Global Pitch' competition at IDFA 2019. Currently, Arun and Dorottya are developing Gross National happiness together as co-directors. The film is supported by the Hungarian National Film Fund, the Sundance Institute and the Catapult Film Fund. Welcome, Arun.

Arun Bhattarai: Thank you very much. 

Alok Adhikari: Thanks, Arun. We have to start with, how did you meet the protagonist, Gyembo and Tashi, and how did you run this, to tell this story for the movie? 

Arun Bhattarai: Well, I think it's just like in many documentaries, you start with something and you reach something else. Right after my master's in a program called Doc Nomads in Europe, I came back to Bhutan and I wanted to do something with young people, to tell a story about young people. At that time, they were starting the first professionally trained women's football team in Bhutan. I thought that's a good place to go and search for stories. So I reached this football camp where they were starting the first women's football team, and that's where I met Tashi first. I hadn't met Gyembo at that time, I only met Tashi. And I spent a few months there and I actually got very close to Tashi because she was very shy, but she was very sure about her own identity. And from there during her summer break, I went to the village in Bumthang, which is in central Bhutan. And that's where I met her brother Gyembo and the father as well. 

What started initially as a sports film (I wanted to make a film about football), kind of became a film about this family and about generation gap, because I thought that here within the microcosm of this monastery, there was an opportunity to reflect upon changing Bhutan as well as generation gap through the story of Gyembo and the father. That's how I reached this story.  But about beginning, that trust, I actually spent a lot of time with all of them. Initially I was at the football academy where I spent about six months trying to find the story and trying to find Tashi. I became friends with everyone and that's where we became really good friends with Tashi and later at home, I became really good friends with the father and also with the brother, because initially I was gaining the trust, showing them a lot of things, and also kind of telling them, this is the kind of film would like to make. Because often, they're not aware of the creative documentary form. 

Often when you go with the camera, people think that, oh, you are from a television station and you came for a few days, you will just interview them, then you leave. But then it is important for me initially to tell them that I'm going to keep coming back, I'm going to sometimes be here, sometimes live with you and I need your help and so we need to be friends, and it should be a very collaborative process. So I wanted to make sure that it was there right from the beginning. I spent a lot of time with all of them to do this film. 

Alok Adhikari: That's fascinating. Thank you, you touch on so many things there. There is a dialogue in the film where you touch on the generation gap that is definitely such a big part of the film. There is a dialogue by the father where he says, our culture is important, that happiness is influenced by Buddhist philosophy, on the other hand, there's still the younger generation for whom happiness has a completely different meaning. Can you comment on these contrasting views and also how you put it in film. 

Arun Bhattarai: For me also, it was actually one of the things that struck me when I went there to the student part of the town. I grew up there, not so far from there, about two hours away. I studied there, so I really wanted to reflect on this idea of generation gap because it's very prevalent in Southasia. Children cannot say no to their parents and I wanted to show this. That's where you see in the film that there is no point where Gyembo will openly revolt against the father, you know. Like the biggest way he can revolt is by maybe closing off when the father is talking to him about his culture. At the same time I also understood where the father is coming from as well, because he's very proud of his culture and they are in charge of this 1000-year-old monastery where. It has been passed down from generation to generation, and now here Gyembo is not willing to take over the monastery. At least he's not telling it, but it's pretty obvious that he doesn't want to do it.

Sana Amir: I want to talk about the way you've shown the use of TV,smartphones and the internet, and how it's being adopted. I suppose it's been the last generation and one of the last countries in the world to actually legalise the use of cable TV, internet. How do you capture that transition? 

Arun Bhattarai: Like you said, Bhutan was the last country in the world to get TV andprobably I come from the first generation who grew up watching television here. It's very interesting because I think the impact is bigger with the internet, because unlike the effect of television and mobile phones generally, the internet is bigger here because everything came at once. Especially this generation, like Tashi and Gyembo, they grew up with their phones and like when we see Gyembo look for football tutorials on YouTube you kind of feel that, oh he's actually not so different from anyone who grows up in America or Europe or anywhere else in the world. So that way, I thought was a subtle way, I wanted to reflect on this contrast between tradition and modernity through small tools. For example, there's a scene in the film where Gyembo's watching television where there's a traditionally painted frame where the TV is kept. I wanted to really reflect on those things in the film.

Sana Amir: I'm going to play a song from the documentary and then we'll have a little bit of a discussion. 

[Music clip plays]

Alok Adhikari: There are a lot of cuts like this in the film like the one we just watched where you have mixed traditional and modern visuals. And we just saw the TV frame you were talking about as well, and some other cuts that I had noted was when the father is dancing to the drum beat and the same beats are heard as the kids are practicing football. Could you talk a little bit more about the editing and the sound designing process. Also to add to that, because your editor is Hungarian, what was that process like? 

Arun Bhattarai: We had an interesting editing process because our editor doesn't speak English, so my co-director Dorottya was translating it to him often. I had to constantly send footage from here because I was here most of the time shooting. We were shooting here and then getting it translated and then sending it to Hungary, and in Hungary, Dorottya actually translated it to Hungarian for our editor. I think it was a very long and difficult process but it was a really good process because somehow our editor had a lot of distance from the footage. Dorottya and I were close to the footage. She would come here, and she was doing the sound, I was doing the camera, so we were so close to everything and we knew the situation, like what was happening, and sometimes we didn't want to. We were so emotional, so it was really good that there was someone who had a really fresh eye watching the film. But actually, the structure of the film itself came out more during the editing process. I like to work that way in documentaries – I like to start with an idea and I go there with an idea and I actually shoot with that lens. And I'm just shooting through that lens, and then when we reach the editing stage, I like to start writing the actual structure, so it's the opposite of fiction I would say. During the editing process we actually started to write down the script and stuff and that's when the story really changed. Before we started the editing, the structure of the film was not really clear. But we knew that we wanted to reflect upon changing times in Bhutan, we wanted to reflect upon generation gap, tradition, modernity using this monastery as the microcosm – using very ordinary everyday situations without big drama. The drama is usually very very subtle through the film, so that was always there in our head when we were out there shooting and searching for moments with the father, searching for moments with Gyemo, and sometimes Gyembo and Tashi together. We started the first initial editing process for four or five months, and then we realised that maybe we need to shoot some more, so I came back here and then we shot again, then we completed the film. So we shot a little bit after the editing process started as well. 

Sana Amir: Okay, so I'm going to play one more clip from the film that we wanted to discuss. 

[Clip plays]

Sana Amir: I wanted to talk about how she refers to Tashi's gender expression. And towards the end, the parents speak to the camera and talk about what they think about Tashi's gender expression. So, is this kind of thinking common in Bhutan, and in general, how is gender viewed?

Arun Bhattarai: One of the reasons why I really got attracted towards this family was also because of how accepting the parents were towards Tashi's identity. Because this interview that you see in the film, it's actually a research interview. The first interview we did with three of them – it wasn't even meant to be part of the film.  We just wanted to hear their thoughts and we were still trying to figure out whether this family could be a part of the movie or not. That's how we worked, we interviewed them just to see how they express themselves, how they are on camera. It's kind of like a casting. I started to ask them questions about what I should do, ask them what they think about the identity, and then the father said that he must have been a boy in his previous life and that's why he's like this. He was so accepting of their identity in front of us, but in everyday life in everyday situations, he referred to Tashi as 'he' as well. So for me, that was very interesting and not very common. He really came from his father's Buddhist beliefs because he's a scapegoat of this monastery and he must be practicing his own Buddhism. But what was interesting for me was that he was so accepting of Tashi, but then he wasn't so accepting of Gyembo when Gyembo wanted to go and play football. 

I thought that if it was in another part of the world, maybe it would have been the complete opposite. But in this family itself, they were unique because they were very accepting, generally,  you see that they use their Buddhist values to interpret everyday realities. You do see a lot of families accept transgender people by saying that this is just how you are born, that this is because of your past life. In this case, this family, they were very accepting.

Sometimes when we go around the village, we would see there was no open discrimination towards Tashi, but sometimes they would make comments: for example when Tashi and Gyembo are at the match playing, and someone made comments about Tashi's hair. When I was growing up, at least in schools and all, I've seen some forms of discrimination towards transgender people. It's not really open and there is discrimination, but this was a very special family. 

Alok Adhikari: The film does not follow traditional talking heads at all and it's entirely observational, which really allows us to factor what the characters are thinking by looking at activities and the conversations, and it's so observant. How did you approach the camera work and where were you when you were shooting? 

Arun Bhattarai: Most of the time I like to be alone on set. I like to go do the sound and I do the camera as well. I feel very comfortable doing it. A lot of sound and post production work happens later on, but it's worth it in the sense that you tend to get some moments that you never get if you are a bigger group, because I spent so much time with the family, almost being a part of their family. We released the film in 2017, but I'm in touch with them right now. We keep on talking with chat all the time. So I became a part of the family, and sometimes you bring someone else on set and then the whole dynamic changes. After spending a lot of time with the family you also kind of realise where you need to place yourself, because you understand the rhythm, like okay, at this time the father is going to go to pray, at this time he is going to bring Gyembo here, and he's going to teach, and he does. It's a very repetitive process. For example Gyembo and Tashi, it used to happen almost every other night, you see them on the bed talking about girls. So I just need to go and stay there. Initially it was uncomfortable for them but then slowly told them that this is important for the film. 

It's also about just staying with the camera and waiting for things to happen, and I think if you wait enough then you get what you want. Sometimes you wait for one scene, you wait for over an hour, just waiting, and something interesting is going to happen, so you just place yourself. I really wanted to work with more composed frames without moving the camera too much as well, so it was more difficult, because I really needed to wait. Through the camera work I wanted to reflect on the rhythm of life and time, because everything is a little bit slow here, everything is a little bit repetitive. So that's why I wanted to intentionally show this repetition, this path and the passing of time in the film. 

Sana Amir: In one of the interviews online I was reading about you, it mentioned that you showed the film to the father and after seeing the film he sort of postponed Gyembo's admission to the school. Could you talk about that, and also in general, how did the audience in Bhutan react to the film?

Arun Bhattarai: We showed the film to the family and it was very interesting because they really enjoyed it, but there are also a lot of awkward moments I think for the parents because they are watching the kids talk about their friends on the phone, and it's tough. After watching the film, the father always reflects about his dream of sending Gyembo to the monastery and seeing that he becomes the next guardian of the monastery. He used to tell that to me always, so after watching the film, he seemed to change his mind a little bit and he actually let Gyembo finish high school. He spent so much time with me, the cre,  all of us talking about Gyembo's future and I think that kind of made him change his mind. 

Sana Amir: What about the general audience's reception? 

Arun Bhattarai: There are very few independent filmmakers here and even fewer documentary makers here. Most of the films that we see are from BBS, which is a local television channel. Most of documentaries are a little bit different in that they are more informational.  They are more journalistic. This was one of the few, the first creative documentary from the country, so we had a very good reaction. And it was the first time that people were watching a documentary in a cinema here, and people could really relate to the film a lot, and we actually screened it to a lot of young people in different high schools. We had a kind of travelling cinema where we took our own projection and our own equipment and we hiked up the mountains showing it to different communities to talk about the themes in the film, and we actually got some really interesting reactions from parents in the villages. Often young people would say that they can really relate to Gyembo. Sometimes, we hear a lot of older people saying that, oh the father is right. But generally, the audience was very receptive here. 

Sana Amir: Thank you, so one question is from one of our participants. 

Srijan Pandey: First off, an amazing movie. I was watching with my mom and she loved it, especially the scene when the father and the son are dancing together. It's awkward and enjoyable at the same time. I was curious about the structure of the film itself. It has a very documentary approach, but it also looks scripted. I love how you blur the line between these two and push the narrative all together. How do you do this? What's the process?

Arun Bhattarai: That's a very interesting question. The structure itself came out during the editing, so while we were filming, of course, I didn't want to do a traditional documentary. I really wanted to do something which has a narrative arc, almost like fiction. And I knew that if I spend enough time with the family, even if there is no huge drama in the film, there will always be this subtle drama which we can integrate in the film. It's all about where we put the drama in the structure, and I knew that we can figure that out during the editing itself. Everything is real because I was there, I was waiting when Tashi and Gyembo went towards the river. They do that almost every evening sometimes. I'll tell them, hey let's go to the river, and then I just follow them. They sit on the rock and then I just film and wait for them to talk, and sometimes, 90 percent of the time, the footage is really bad because they don't talk about what you want. But sometimes, if you know what they usually talk about, I give them little pointers – why didn't you talk about this – and then they talk about that. And initially, it's really not natural, but then because they talk about it all the time, they forget about the camera and then it becomes really natural. So it was that kind of improv… I really improvised during the shooting. While they are on location, I give them small cues to talk about. That was the shooting process, but the structure itself really came out during the editing, and then during the editing we realised that we don't have a strong ending. I mean we had that scene where they were climbing the rock and we knew that we wanted that to be the end of the film, but we didn't have something before that. Because till that point the father hadn't taken Gyembo to the monastery, so I came back to the shooting and then I talked to the father and I was telling him, when are you going to take him to the monastery and then he's like okay, let's go tomorrow. So that's how I went with the father and we filmed that. So I think it's all about filming things that would happen in the future or things that happen at other times but wouldn't happen in front of the camera. It's a balance between the two, and then the structure I normally don't like to think about. Normally, I don't like to think about the structure during the shooting process. Usually it comes out during the editing for me. 

Sana Amir:  So you were talking about filmmaking and how difficult it is to make films, but lately, a couple of films have been screened on international platforms. What do you think has changed in the past few years in terms of funding for films in the filmmaking process. 

Arun Bhattarai: So here in Britain, nothing has changed. We had one film that got nominated for those grants, but even that also didn't change anything for the cinema itself because we don't really have support for arts here. And the market itself is also small because our population is so small, so it's very difficult even for commercial filmmakers. For me, because I studied in Hungary, it was easier to find a producer from Hungary for The Next Guardian. So that's helped me to raise the funds, and also I applied for a lot of art foundations there. So we had funding for development for production and post production from this. Most of the funds for this film actually came from there and part of the funds came from our Hungarian producer, so the sad thing is that we have to rely on having producers from Europe or the US. That's I think the same for most independent filmmakers and Southasia. That was not a problem for me creatively but sometimes it can be a problem because you can't really tell your own authentic stories,  because then every time you have to worry that the film isn't relatable to somebody in Europe. But I think the first priority should be, is it relatable to someone in Bhutan. 

Alok Adhikar: That's true, and you notice that in so many markets as well. I'm curious, in Southasia you said nothing has changed, but are there new creative documentary filmmakers coming up in Bhutan at all, in the community that's growing a little bit, or is it just you at the moment? We are always looking for something to screen from Bhutan at our festivals. 

Arun Bhattarai: We have a few independent fiction filmmakers, but for documentaries at the moment, it's very few. I think we start with fiction and gradually they will move towards documentary at some point. But making creative documentaries, I think right now, it's just me actually. Obviously, while directly I involve a lot of people locally, and I have some people even editing and everything. I was also teaching at the university here, so right now I'm also involved in some of my students' work.

Alok Adhikari: I have a question: there's a lot of stress from the father that only a male can lead a monastery, and not that there's any indication that Tashi would actually would be interested in running the monastery, but have things changed now and are there any female leadership in monasteries?

Arun Bhattarai: So this is a private monastery and very few private monasteries are left right now in Bhutan because of this same issue, where the son doesn't want to take over the monastery anymore. And then what happens, eventually the government takes over the monastery, so this is also a case where the family property gets taken over by the government. Right now, the father is still there, still has the monastery, but this was also one of his problems. I don't know any women who are taking over. And actually the father was very open to the idea of Tashi taking over the monastery. But then it would have been problematic for the community itself there, so that's why it didn't go ahead. 

Srijan Pandey: I noticed that you use a lot of static wide angle shots to not only show the monastery but also the part of dancing where she is going around. Does it have any specific meaning beyond showing the place and everything?

Arun Bhattarai: That's usually my style, that's how I shoot. We didn't really want to use movement in the film until we were very sure it would show the rhythm of life. It has to show the rhythm of life here. It also matched with the repetitive routine that we wanted to show that happens in real time. Thank you. 

Sana Amir: So are you still in touch with Tashi and Gyembo, or anything about another project that's following then?

Arun Bhattarai: There is good news and bad news. I've been in touch with the two of them for the last two years. Gyembo completely disappeared and he wasn't talking to me, and I was wondering what happened, but then I realised about a year ago that the father actually sent him to the monastery. He is in the monastery for maybe two more years, then I think he'll be done. So he left his high school and he is in the monastery. The same one the father takes him to at the end of the film. Tashi, she couldn't get back to football so she's now playing table-tennis, and made the national ping pong team. She's also studying , she's in college. 

Alok Adhikari: I would love a follow up to this film! Last question, we mentioned Gross National Happiness, another film you're working on. Could you tell us a bit about that. 

Arun Bhattarai: Yes, I'm also co-editing this film with Dorottya because we have a really great working relationship and somehow she has the outside perspective and I have the local view, and it works really well together. This film is about a happiness agent who goes around Bhutan doing the happiness survey, so through this happiness agent, who works for the happiness department of Bhutan, we meet different people. It's like different stories told through this agent who goes on a road trip with his best buddy, who is also a happiness agent, and then he himself is unhappy. The happiness agent is desperate to get married. So that's the story. It's kind of satire, and kind of bittersweet. We're reaching the editing stage for this film as well, so we can possibly expect it around next year. 


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