A recent short-film contest in Kathmandu, featuring films of three minutes or less on the subject of climate change, put up by the British and organised by Himal Association, saw the showing of a staggering 124 entries. While the filmmakers, all of whom were Nepali, exhibited an impressive range and quality, it was a range obscured by the selection of some fairly typical public-service-announcement-type finalists. Hopefully, however, two sets among the entries will soon see the light of day: those documenting the effects of climate change on Nepali communities, and those exploring (and exploiting) anxieties and fears about the burgeoning climate crisis.
With crippling loadshedding, chronic water shortages, inflating food price and poor air quality, the Kathmandu Valley might be ahead of the curve in terms of a world that refuses to make any concession to the worsening environmental catastrophe towards which we are headed. In this sense, the Valley is the perfect home for a film contest on climate change. But considering how little Nepal actually contributes to greenhouse gases, and how much of the consequences it will eventually have to bear, it is somewhat disappointing to be treated to rehashes of rudimentary and sometimes dated sermonising. Undoubtedly, Nepal, and Kathmandu in particular, would indeed be a far more pleasant and healthy place to live if, for instance, its denizens agreed to compost and opted to walk; but it is difficult to see how any amount of recycling on the part of countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh or the Maldives would make a material difference to global climate change, other than to assuage the guilt of the middle classes of these countries and elsewhere. In the global nature of climate change, its causes and consequences, what is far more pressing are statements directed across the divide of the industrialised (and fast-industrialising) and the vulnerable.
Engaging our anxieties proves an attractive and fecund strategy for other of the filmmakers involved in the recent competition. Nightmares, and awaking from them, feature as a common motif. For instance, Prabin Syangbo’s Step Up takes as its protagonist a recognisably apathetic Nepali youth, turning down every chance to take action only to wind up in a post-apocalyptic world of his own making. Raghuwar Nepal, director of last year’s Dream … A Mess of Things, a free-flowing assemblage of interviews with Kathmandu’s citizens recalling their dreams, takes a more effective, skilful approach to the same premise as Syangbo’s. The film jerkily speeds up his images, overlaid with a syncopated beat: running kids carrying signs of impending ecological disaster represent the scary thoughts that plague our sleeping everyman, only to wake up to be surrounded by ‘solutions’ – recycle, etc. It is smartly done and well-executed, barring a few spelling errors. In a more direct vein, Anup Poudyal’s My Green Home and Suresh Limbu’s Get Your Act Together (which received special mention by the judges), along with the second runner-up 3Cs of Climate Change, are all slick exhortations on adopting greener habits with these anxieties expunged.
Such prosaic suggestions on how to lower one’s ‘carbon footprint’ might be overly represented, however, and, frankly, irrelevant. It is strange that the filmmakers have chosen to take this route when the funding country (the UK) produces 175 times more greenhouse-gas emissions than does Nepal, let alone the economic powerhouses of the industrialised world and Nepal’s own giant neighbours. By rehashing tepid solutions to the ongoing crisis, we treat global warming and climate change as something preventable and reversible; the reality is very different.
All of which makes Naresh Kumar KC’s Ozone Layer all the more compelling, a talent whose audacious take on the challenge is realised in an insightfully imagined short with shades of science fiction and horror. In KC’s work, global warming and the depleted ozone layer require humans to take up a nocturnal existence in the near future, figuratively turning our days into nights. Part of the pleasure of this short is watching the convincing depictions of Kathmandu’s new photophobic nightlife, with school buses picking up their charges in the dark and snarled and knotted traffic in the middle of the night. But its power and effectiveness draws from the anxieties of this nightmarish scenario, and the observations on the limits and drawbacks of human adaptability.
In a similar vein, though more conventional in comparison, is Kumar Bhattarai’s Face the Death, which features a small army of actors enduring the heat, grim-faced and dour in a militarised hard-scrabble life. A dry, dusty wind mercilessly whips them, underscoring the enmity of nature to human existence. Drawing on Nepali theatre, it is a maudlin appeal to our emotions. But to draw a comparison between these latter two, even as KC’s entry attempted to exploit the emotional, irrational side of the audience by employing science-fiction conventions, it does provide some distance from his subject as it engages how climate change will drastically affect our behaviour and challenge our ability to change.
Other films are somewhat balder in what they attempt. Prakesh Shrestha’s Culture and Climate Change, for instance, has no such protection of genre when it boldly probes the difficult subject of cremation along Nepal’s holy rivers, calculating that some 6.3 tonnes of carbon emissions are released per day in one location alone. This is the uncomfortable direction that these conversations need to take: not a disregard to sensitivities per se, but a realisation of the drastic changes we need to make.
Directing the camera to the communities whose lives and livelihoods climate change threatens (or has already effected), a handful of filmmakers have chosen to make documentaries. In More People May Die, Mohan Mainali and Prakash Shah address food shortages in far-western Nepal, focusing on farming families in Bajura, where a dry summer and a late monsoon this year have led to crop failure. Saurav Dhakal’s Fish, Fish, No Fish takes a similar strategy, and simply documents a single day in the lives of a fisherman’s family. Futilely drawing back an empty net from the raging river time and again, the short directly and poignantly highlights the drastic changes in the environment and the cascading effects on human communities.
In cash-strapped times, these contests focusing on climate change prove to be a cost-effective strategy in generating content. With no funding directed to the filmmaker for production, and prize money amounting to NPR 130,000 (USD 1700) for the three winners, the climate-change film contest is a way to make a splash on the cheap. In this instance, the finalists are all works in the vein of public-service announcements, for which NGOs might have paid lakhs in the past. Indeed, the quality and quantity of the content generated must have been surprising to the organisers. The similarly themed yearly fellowships by the British Council in India, which funds filmmakers to make shorts, have this year returned with decidedly less interesting, and even less polished, work.
At the same time, the three-minute shorts, or at least the ones highlighted as finalists in Kathmandu, are not the most effective format by which to jumpstart the urgent dialogue that the precipitating crisis requires. It is a somewhat condescending notion, which does not realise the dimension of climate change and instead appears to be of the opinion that Nepal’s problems can be solved through good citizenship. Real solutions involve informing the industrial world of the urgent consequences of climate change on people in vulnerable communities, and demanding action – caps on emissions and access to technology, green or otherwise – that will help the rest of the world adapt to climate change. With China already haven taken the top of the list of greenhouse emitters, and with India catching up, it should also commence serious grappling with our present model of development that envisions industrialisation as the only route to affluence in the present global economy. Developing nations most vulnerable to climate change are ill-served by political docility and self-inflicted guilt.
~ A Angelo D’Silva is an educationist and media critic in Kathmandu.