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: www.sansarmedia.blogspot.com

24 August, 2009

A Happy Mistake

Sushma Joshi
I became a hippie by mistake. A few days before my 19th birthday, a man approached me in the co-operative house where I used to live in Providence, Rhode Island, and asked: “Would you like to follow the Grateful Dead?” “Yes!” I answered, having not the slightest clue what or who the Grateful Dead were. “Do you know what you’re getting into?” My friend Naomi, who was accompanying me on this venture, asked me. “No,” I said. “But my brother used to listen to the Grateful Dead. They have covers with skulls holding roses between

their teeth.”

And that was the way I ended up wounding my way across the U.S. in a rattling Volkswagen van, cutting a straight path from Ohio to Kentucky to Illinois to Berkeley to Eugene, Oregon in a gypsy caravan with four hippies, singing and dancing along with one of the most alternative bands on the planet. Never mind that by this time (this was 1992), the Grateful Dead were more mainstream than Bon Jovi. Who cared about their record sales when you could stand outside Deer Creek with bare feet waving two fingers up in

the air chanting “Give me a miracle, give me a miracle!” and avoiding the Christian missionaries who brought you the miracle of Jesus Christ instead of the longed for free ticket, and before long some longhaired dude would finally sneak up at the last moment, convinced of your dedication, and slip a free ticket between your fingers? (To be fair to Jesus, I did get down on my knees and ask him to appear, as commanded by miracle workers. Get up, Sush, said Naomi in disgust. To my disappointment, he never did show up.)

The strange caravan got stranger as we entered the heartland—a Mormon with two wives joined us and tried to convince Naomi to be his third wife (never mind that she was a Jew) and also split a gigantic vat of chocolate and hallucinogenic mushrooms all over our tiny vehicle, leaving Roberto, our Puerto Rican owner of the van, fuming as all of us got down on our knees and wiped up the brown sludge in a scene reminiscent of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.

But this was not the only trippy scene in the trip—before long the Mormon had vanished and we had to go searching for him in the middle of the Kansas night, and men with guns tightened their lips as we entered their stores, letting us know that despite all the love and light, four hippies of cow-loving ethnicities were not welcome in the deep heart of Biblical America.

Kansas was inhospitable, but Factory Rob in Kentucky made up for this by taking us on a snappy ride around town telling us racy tales about how he shot off the legs of some dudes who’d come to steal his radio in his beat-up car. More unintentional hospitality followed—a gigantic man somewhere near Colorado took a fancy to me and took us to his basement and insisted we carry back with us jars and jars of fresh salmon and boysenberry jam. Somewhere amongst all this somebody slipped me a sip of Kind Bud (with about 100 times the THC content of regular ganja) and I found myself staring at the Grateful Dead with tears streaming down my face, half of me saying devoutly: Brother Jerry! While the other side of me thought: these hippies! Drug users!

Then we were in Colorado with Naomi’s cousins watching blue jays and street performers in Boulder’s main street. And then somehow we found ourselves trudging up to the Berkeley campus trying to squat in their co-operative house, where the hippies would surely appreciate our green, organic, peace and love presence. After all, we’d spent a year in the Milhaus co-op, a house filled with water beds and old videotapes of the musical Hair, where you could often find people making out under the kitchen table. We were ready for Berkeley. So we thought.

I’ll spare you all the details except to mention that we did make it up to Eugene, Oregon, another holy grail of the hippie trail, and met up with some serious folks who were sabotaging the machinery of those woodsmen who came to cut down the ancient forests. Greedy corporate culture was being sabotaged under our eyes, and a

very serious business this was,

sabotage—complete with more mushrooms usage.

A few more trips followed which would take a book to write about—a trip to New Orleans to meet up with another hippie friend who’d dropped out from college and was involved in a lifestyle so alternative the Presbetarians we were living with finally had to kick us out (I have artwork that documents these crucial scenes), and then daring all I took the Greyhound bus for 52 hours all the way from New York to Santa Fe, arriving delirious and completely devoid of baggage, which had been lost somewhere along the fifteen or so bus changes I had made along the way.

Forgot to mention the trip in which I took the Juneau ferry from Alaska to Seattle sleeping outside in the deck with tough little street kids who took me under their wing and assured me they’d protect me with their pocket knives before the Jehovah’s Witness (Aka God’s Kayak Man) took me home for the night, where I met his nine children and perky wife and for whose

hospitality and pickup van ride I was very grateful.

America was a trip. But I wouldn’t have the same stories to tell if it were not for the people who came before me—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, all the beat poets and the writers who paved the way and smashed through the pretty 1950s with something more naked and more truthful than a house with a flagpole, a wife and two kids, and a dog in the backyard.

This was America riding the wave of the tsunami of the hippie 1970s, that alternative world of peace and love which refuted war and which spilled across the border of nations, bringing music and drugs and love all the way to the shores of faraway Nepal, and whose traces we can still see in the small jazz-houses and ganja brownie stores on the now non-

existent Freak Street.

Woodstock, that festival of music which started it all, was also a mistake. The organiser who put the music festival heavily underestimated the numbers of people who would show up. Before he knew it, the crowd had swelled, and swelled, and swelled-with highways blocked for miles and miles and miles around as people, disgusted with the war against Vietnam and longing for a new and freer way to express themselves, all trudged through the fields of upstate New York to reach that place where people like Ravi Shankar and Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell all redefined music, and with it, the culture of America.

This was the start of the 60s and all that came with it—and the mistake that allowed me to make my own mistakes. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Posted on: 2009-08-14 22:35:43 (Server Time)

04 August, 2009

Darjeeling dreams

Sushma Joshi
Kathmandu Post, 2009/07/31

Long before it became fashionable in Kathmandu to discuss ways to eradicate caste, class and ethnic boundaries and discrimination, there was one Nepali space where this was already taking place. The hill station of Darjeeling, where the British went to cool off, has retained an institutional legacy of colonialism that even the staunchest post-colonialist would have a hard time criticising. This legacy comes in the form of British-style boarding schools which teach children not just the time-honoured stiff upper lip regarding hardships, but also an absolute levelling of all social hierarchies.

These schools have literally transformed thousands upon thousands of Nepali students into intelligent, efficient and law-abiding citizens. Ever wondered why some institutions in Nepal function so well, despite the crazy culture of malingering and corruption? The secret is probably a Darjeeling (or “Darj” for short) alum. I’d guarantee there’s a high likelihood of discovering a Darj alum behind the scene of a school, hotel and business that seem to show sign of genuine meritocracy, entrepreneurship and ethical leadership.

I spent four years, between the ages of 8 to 12, in Dowhill School, Kurseong. Kurseong is a pretty little town in the district of Darjeeling. I was fortunate enough to get this chance for two reasons. One, because my mother fought for it despite my grandparents’ opposition (“why spend so much money on a girl’s education?”). And two, because a kindly headmistress in Guheswori Primary School in Kathmandu advocated on my behalf and told my parents that their daughter was bright and she would ask her sister, also a headmistress, to give me a scholarship in Kurseong. So I was a scholarship child even at that early age. I slept in a dormitory with children from all over India and Nepal. The girl who slept on my left was a Lepcha, and the girl on my right was a Brahmin. My best friend was from a Dalit caste (although I didn’t know this since it was never discussed, till three decades later.) We never knew what caste or class or ethnicity we were. I was aware of my gender, though—my parents had chosen to put my brother in an expensive private school known as Mt. Hermon School (he wasn’t a scholarship student in a government school, that was for sure), and I was always reminded of the gap between him and me. Just in case I were to get any uppity ideas, my parents promptly removed me from Darjeeling and brought me back to Kathmandu on the day my brother graduated from high school.

So that is why reading The Dark Mermaid was a bittersweet experience for me. On the one hand, I loved the fable of the dark girl from a poor family who is able to escape her background and her roots and go—where else?—but the fabled Mt. Hermon School, where she is able to exhibit her swimming skills and wow the entire school as a star athlete. On the other hand, I couldn’t help being jarred, here and there, by the unreality of the story. For instance, how do Mr. and Mrs. Nepali of Birgunj manage to put a girl in that expensive school despite barely being able to meet their household expenses? The father assures his daughter he will manage—but he never tells us how.

This push and pull of the book is tangible. I really want to believe that all caste, gender, class and skin colour boundaries can be eradicated through the simple miracle of boarding school—after all, haven’t those of us who suffered though boarding school all experienced that salvation of equality in one form or another? On the other hand, how many Nepali people can actualise their dream to put their daughter in these institutions, and how many Birgunj girls actually make it out to Mt. Hermon and become swimming champions?

The swimming champion plot, a rip-roaring, Quiddich competition type ride, hit a personal nerve. The act of swimming, for me, has always stood for my gender inequality. My brother was a swimming champion in Mt. Hermon School (we have photographs to prove it) but I never learnt to swim because there were no swimming lessons in my government school.

In The Dark Mermaid, however, Dowhill School appears on equal terms, all real-world inequalities eradicated, and the girls there compete freely and win freely along with Mt. Hermon in the swimming competition. In an email exchange, the author admitted to me his book is fiction and he’s taken liberty with the truth, and this graceful reworking of inequality reminded me how much of children’s fiction works because it does both—it is both a reflection of social reality, as well as a reworking of it.

To sum up—The Dark Mermaid is a fantastic book, one that is sorely needed in Nepal. I found the writing to be clear, accessible and wonderfully easy to read. My autobiographical musings is more adult quibbling than anything else. The book is sure to provide Nepali students with a book that they can identify with and claim as their own. I hope that Amar Shrestha, as well as other writers like him, will continue to write these books for students in Nepal and that this is just the beginning of a long series of works for children. Let’s hope this book gets picked up by schools around Nepal so that it encourages more writers to pick up the pen and start writing out new worlds for Nepali children.