A Look Back with a Look Forward…
A friendly country, a friendly capital, resources small but with the spirit of community and the Himalayas just down the road, you would not find red carpet glamour or star-spotting at the 14th edition of the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival (KIMFF) but plentiful harmonious feelings of being at the spiritual epicenter of adventure and filmmaking. Hosted by the Himal Association, the festival started in 2000, initially as a bi-annual event before demand and popularity made it annual.
The criteria to enter is any film that is made in the region of the local Himalayas or any other mountain region, so the films do not need necessarily to have a directly mountain-related theme as part of their subject matter. That initially confused some until one of the programmers explained such. With this flexibility, any subject matter can be entered from the locality (a Nepali documentary titled The Kidney Action underlined this) and also from anywhere else as long as it is thematically mountainous.
With so many films to choose from it did become an endurance test akin to scaling the mountain peaks to both watch and then choose the winners in the International Section and Nepal Panorama. However, a couple or more feature films in the International Section Competition did stand out. Urmila – My Memory is My Power, by German director Susan Gluth, was unanimously chosen by our jury as the First Prize winner because of its brilliantly executed and clearly structured documentary journey through the eyes of one young woman’s personal, brave and tireless fight for justice.
In what is a very poignant, very real and distressing subject matter about a remarkable young woman and her efforts to save young female children from the fate that she suffered herself in Nepal society, the documentary is executed clearly in its facts through its combination of rhythmic editing and pacing. But what makes it unique is not just for being beautifully shot, but also for the original, and at times almost lyrical, way that it avoids being trapped into sentimentality and judgement so therefore consistently remains impartial to the problems, thus letting the audience draw their own interpretations and conclusions from what they see and hear.
First and foremost, the visual style is calm and compelling, drawing the audience into its subject matter without seduction or contrivance. The emotional distress and despair of the young subjects’ situation is not used to manipulate the audience with any particular accusations or over-dramatic scenes. There is a consistently masterful style of cinematography and editing here which complements the high-level relaying of the tireless quest in an almost soothing way, further complemented by the seemingly at odds but actually fittingly calm and reflective music soundtrack which blends into the ambience perfectly in its sensuousness.
While it does not share actual or new light on the everyday life of an indigenous mountain community, the focus here is to convey in sharp, poignant and often heartbreaking detail the lives of innocent children that were taken against their will from the poor families of contemporary Nepal society. It also shows that the poor are not always the most innocent people in these situations. It was these accounts and production values which made Urmila – My Memory is My Power the deserved main competition winner.
The Second Prize went to the film Trembling Mountain because it was a film that depicted how the 2015 earthquake in the Himalayan region was felt across the world, with victims’ families present from numerous countries. Kesang Tseten’s film is extremely informative, brave and with a paradoxically optimistic resignation to nature. Told from the Nepali and Tibetan viewpoint it is an inevitable story with a lesson for everyone about how people affected by such a disaster have to somehow build up their lives again. Honest without exaggeration or sentimental manipulating of emotions, the interviews and other footage make for a good balance and the story moves slowly but progressively forward through the mountain, culture and community, with inextricably interwoven editing.
In our choice for Third Prize, the enemy is still nature, every single step is difficult. Through the Unknown (Verso I’ignoto) follows the known path of every climbing or expedition film. Filmed constantly out of the comfort zone, it was notably also filmed in Pakistan, an area not renowned for mountain climbing. The title alludes to the documentary premise well. It is an extremely daring and exceptional undertaking of a winter climbing expedition. The Nanga Parbat mountain expedition porters and Pakistani climber are part of the team and are not shown as separates, neither are they depicted as egotistical in any way.
Two different fiction films compared to the rest of the festival (cultural and geographical) were also two flipsides of the same coin and therefore both given a Jury Special Mention. Both Coming of Age and Il Passo, from South Africa and Italy respectively, concern the sometimes painful and tormented rites of passage of growing up and making a choice. Questions such as: ‘Do I stay in the mountain? Do I leave?’ become central to the life juncture. These choices for adolescents in a so-called global village and coming of age balance nicely and build up towards distinguished moments in the lives of the girls and boys, yin and yang, mountains and low lands. The slow hypnotic pacing demands perseverance from the audience but in a positive, challenging way. The camera as fly on the wall keeps its distance. Thus the protagonists can act freely as if there is no filmmaker around. Only a few times in Coming of Age do the boys and girls talk into the camera when they are alone…. Both films were extremely well done.
Just like Urmila – My Memory is My Power, the Nepal Panorama Best Documentary winner Devaki: In Search of Devi is likewise a very serious and interesting subject matter. Born in the far West of Nepal, director Devaki Bista is also a journalist, photo-journalist and social worker. However, she is true to her roots and way of life and, as the title character, has to face up to many challenges to prove that her traditions still exists. The documentary concerns her local region and the offering of a young boy or girl to a temple by a family in return for the fulfilment of a wish. Devaki had to make interviews in difficult circumstances, sometimes even filming secretly. The result is a unique documentary that is very well edited and impresses by its freedom of speech, something seen conspicuously many times in this year’s festival. Also, the personal connection to and point-of-view from the subject makes this film even more true to life and daring.
A very poetic artistic film, Dadyaa: The Woodpeckers of Rotha by Pooja Gurung and Bibhusan Basnet is, again, also very different and helped it stand in front as Nepal Panorama Best Fiction Film. To discerning eyes, it might at first look abstract but is actually very clear and focused, very well filmed and very well scripted. Its subtle build-up of elements from man and nature; fog, trees, a hut, old man and woman, masks, mannequins, etc., enhance this. Also, regards its contemporary subjects: a ghost town after an earthquake, hanging onto traditions (being a craftsman), resilience to a situation, such as what do you do when children are leaving the rural and mountain life for the city and the elders stay behind…
Finally, the Jury Special Mention in the Nepal Panorama went to Beyond the White Cane by directors Upendra Raj Pandey and Badri Neupane. This movie gives dignity to a 70-year-old blind man and father of five with good compelling characterisation. It raises questions like why is he still doing this difficult job carrying eggs and the trust he puts in his clients in the modest financial transactions. The portrayal is of a positively stubborn and proud man with excellent seamless editing which draws in the viewer inexorably, in this unusual and compelling short fiction film.
As part of the Mountain Film Alliance which covers such thematic film festivals globally, the UNESCO treasure that is Kathmandu has the added pull of being in the basin of the Himalayas to draw mountain and/or film fanatics. After the 2015 tragedy here, more unwitting attention is being focused on the area but that has not stopped enthusiasts in continuing this intimate and friendly festival that hopefully will expand the minds of the local people to the possibilities of making films from minuscule budgets to more ambitious works, all of which were demonstrated here in 2016 and should do for years to come.