Ben Campbell is an anthropologist with the University of Durham and a longtime visitor to Nepal. In 2007, he spent time talking with and filming villagers living in the harsh geography of the Trisuli River in Rasuwa district. Although an area with a long and important history of trade between the Tibetan plateau and the region’s South, border trade has been extremely limited in recent decades. At a price of some NPR 1.3 billion, however, the Chinese government has helped put up a 17-km road from the Nepali midhills up to the Tibetan border. That road opened in December 2009. Campbell recently spoke with Himal’s sister organisation Film South Asia about his experience in making the documentary, The Way of the Road, and the villagers’ aspirations and anxieties.
As an anthropologist, why did you decide to take on the role of filmmaker to explore the issue of the new road in Rasuwa?
This is the second film I have made in collaboration with my brother, Cosmo, who is a cameraman. Our first film was also based in Nepal – an homage to the bombo [shaman], who helped me to understand the ethnic Tamang-speaking people’s special relationships with the non-human world. Shamanic Pilgrimage to Gosainkund followed a bombo and villagers over several days going up to the holy lake of the area, and it has a peak moment where the bombo calls out to the gods and goddesses of the mountain for protection, care and good fortune. That scene never fails to move me to the core.
Over the years, the film became known among the Tamang villages of Rasuwa district. So when I returned after a seven-year absence due to the armed conflict, and met with one of the participants from the first production, he suggested that I make a new film, focusing on the ritual form called the Dance of Kings. When I returned with my brother, however, there was a new road being constructed in the area, which seemed likely to change the district forever. It occurred to me that the conjunction of the opening-up to road traffic through the mountains, and the drama performance of old border wars, would provide strong visual material for thinking about cultural history and change.
Why did you decide to weave yourself into the film narrative?
This just flowed from the physicality of interactions and variety of relationships. There are many scenes when I am trying not to be an obvious presence in the frame. One interesting scene has one of the boys commenting on the artificiality of scene construction: ‘It’s only them who have to stay quiet, it’s OK for us to talk,’ to which his bemused auntie asks ‘Why is that?’ There were some scenes, such as a thunderstorm by the cave of Guru Rinpoche, where I really did look like a drowned rat in the footage, that were left out, as they say, for ‘aesthetic’ reasons.
The theme of movement strongly emerges in the film, as with the contrast of the Dance of Kings at the unchanging Nepal-Tibet border. How did you think about this theme while filming?
Sometimes there were serendipitous moments, as when a motorbike rider has had enough of looking on at the ancestors’ dance, the Dance of Kings and carries on his way. We catch that on camera. Indeed, the border antics attempt to stop the naturalness of flow. At a deep level, I think this resonates massively with the Tamang sense of location. Life only makes sense in movement, in cycles of seasons, in cycles of a life-course, and that means relocating to high and low, and transiting between states, encountering new configurations of neighbours and linguistic etiquette at each turn. The point of stillness can only be achieved by some external intervention. The clash of the long-ago armies gives us this buffering line in the sand to stop free passage, as the challenges from each side are given to test the mettle of the other. Credit also goes to my brother, who caught with his camera the feeling of movement so well in the passage of light across the landscape in a series of accelerated sequences.
How do you think the construction of the road could affect the migration of the young, male Nepali workforce?
This is the main quandary. Can the road provide hope to villagers of a more dependable kind than the route to other lands currently does? You only have to watch the filmmaker Kesang Tseten’s recent film, In Search of the Riyal, to see how fragile are the livelihoods, of the compromise and debt involved in the move to the Gulf, for instance. But even the possibility of migrating for work to the Gulf involves too much cost for most Tamang villagers. The danger is that too much confidence and ambition will delude the young into believing that the road will deliver prosperity, and they might borrow a significant amount of money in order to try to stake a claim to the wealth that will flow for some.
The film looks at one village that uprooted itself to be placed adjacent to the dirt motorway. To what extent do you predict a similar exodus from ancestral villages once the road is completed?
So much depends on whether the road that is being built through the existing villages is constructed with quality engineering that can resist the monsoon landslides. If not, the likelihood is that the alternative possible route, by the river bottom, will end up carrying the traffic. This will, indeed, spell disaster for the Tamang communities that the road project’s documents claim are the intended beneficiaries.
You give little airtime to those actually helming this project – the Kathmandu and Beijing governments, donors, etc. Was this a conscious omission?
I tried to get some interviews with the Department of Roads and the chief district officer in nearby Dhunche. But these contacts never materialised in the 18 days we had to film, which also fell during the autumn festivals. Nonetheless, it is rare for villagers’ perspectives to be presented on these kinds of issues, so it doesn’t worry me aesthetically or politically that the policy and donor views are not included. It would be naïve to think that such people would actually allow themselves to freely speak their minds, anyway – certainly to the extent that the film offers to others in airing their views. All the people talking at any length in the film have known me for two decades, and I don’t believe I could just walk in to an office and expect similar colloquial responsiveness.
How do rural Nepali highlanders, typically still quite closely connected to their past, reconcile the looming change into modernity signified by the new road?
The new modernity is so exciting because it will be a clearly Asian modernity. The location of Nepal between the two giants of Asia presents an array of possible tie-ups with processes at work to the north and south. The Rasuwa communities have such strong ancestral pulls to the north, and have historically been treated so poorly by the Nepali state, that the road will provide avenues for reinventing themselves as the borderland brokers of the transition zone across Asia’s new networks of globalisation.
What does the road construction hold for China and India?
The road should provide a considerable boost to the trade of the southern Tibetan towns closest to the crossing. Let’s hope the geopolitical implications are benign, as the India and China borders could eventually be only six hours apart when the full highway is metalled and complete.
Have you shown the completed film to the subjects who are featured?
The local critique is always that I haven’t included enough of them. They enjoyed a scene showing a telephone conversation between a wife and her husband overseas – they remarked on her verbal skills, as she berates her husband! I gave the people of Bharku village the entire footage of their Dance of Kings, and they told me that some German filmmakers who had done some shooting there previously had never sent a copy, which is shocking. A French crew I met likewise took some great film of the Bharku shamans twenty years ago, which never saw the light of day. It is a great shame when the cooperation of villagers cannot be reciprocated with copies of the ensuing films or footage.
Since the filming, in 2007, the road has been completed. Have the communities’ predictions come true?
The last I heard, in October, they were bringing truckloads of apples down from Lhasa.
~ This new column, Tapestry, will offer stories that arise in the course of the ongoing work being done by Himal’s two sister organisations, Film South Asia (FSA) and the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange. This article was sourced from FSA; more information at www.filmsouthasia.org.