Saturday, August 29, 2009

Shooting Climate Change

29 AUGUST, 2009



When Basanta Thapa of the Himal Association called me up and asked me if I’d like to be one of the jury members of the UK Nepal Climate Change Competition, it sounded easy. “We’ve received three films,” he said. “About seven have registered to send more.” We estimated at the most about two dozen films, each three minutes long, that we’d watch in one sitting.

When I rushed in at 9:15am at the judging venue, and said: “I hear we now have 70 submissions!”, Basanta Dai said to me: “Its now 124!” The numbers were incredible, if only because a few years ago one could count the number of filmmakers on the fingers of two hands. As we sat down to watch the first film, I got a tingle in my scalp from the excitement. There were 124 filmmakers in Nepal who were not just interested in climate change issues but who had actually gotten it together to submit films? This, indeed, ws good news for Nepal. This explosion of filmmaking had come not just from access to cheap technology but also to the notion that film was a difficult, expensive and high endeavour available only to the priviledged few. Film had, finally, become a democratic medium for expression.

I remember 1998 when I put in a proposal to make a film about water through IRC Netherlands, and was a lonely 26 year old female filmmaker in what appeared to be a rather set and stable world of senior, male filmmakers. My proposal was accepted over the others—and I think I was never quite forgiven for this by my competitors. Admittedly, one reason why the producer chose me was the incredibly low budget I sent in. I guess that undercutting the market price in 1998 was just a hint of times to come, when expensive beta and film would give way to a wave of cheap technology that would allow any youngster with an innovative idea, a camcorder and some familiarity with an editing program to express their views to the world.

The 124 films span the spectrum, from professionally shot documentaries to amateur films shot with low budget technology. Styles vary from plain didactic teacherly model of father and mother instructing children, to what appears to be montages of National Geographic footage, to Powerpoint presentations with music, to Kollywood melodramas, to serious documentaries, to stylized dramas, to hiphop videos. The blue globe appears to be a favorite starting motif, with it appearing in over thirty percent of the films! The subtitles (a requirement of the competition was that the films be subtitled in English) are often surreal. Some of the films have nothing to do with the theme—one submission was about the dangers of swine flu (appropriately mistitled “swan flue.”) One filmmaker subtitled his films in what appeared to be Bhanubhakta style poetry lyrics.

As the day goes by and the images of the planet heading towards an apocalyptic course piles on top of each other, we find ourselves laughing at moments of light relief. Because of course, underneath the dramas of stories of floods, and glacier lake melts, and food shortages, and carbon emission, is the ever-present thought that we may be heading towards a climactic point of no return. So it is a relief to see films which provide solutions, and which tell us how we may be able to get out of this mess—everything from caps on automobile and industrial pollution, to the termination of chemicals that cause global warming, to changes in lifestyle.

What is clear is that the three winning films will not be the end of the story. The story of climate change continues throughout all the other films, the top 10 and even the top 20, and perhaps all 124 films, which string together to tell a story much larger, more profound and more richer than anything that can be seen and understood within 10 minutes. The hope, of course, is that the filmmakers from all backgrounds will continue to tell their stories even after the global climate change conference, where the films will be screened, is over.

The lesson from being in the jury is clear. There is a great desire to tell their stories in a new generation of Nepali storytellers. This desire and wish should be nurtured and mentored by international organizations, the Nepal Film Board, but also schools and universities who should add film courses to their traditional curriculum so that young people can learn to tell their stories in creative ways that are just seeming to be possible now. And perhaps, through these creative acts, the linkages to lifestyle changes—less consumerism, choosing more sustainable energy options, using less disposable goods—will appear clearer.

Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker. Read more about her documentary WATER here: