to my shame, it took a student film called sharnarthi for me to be aware of events that occured almost in my backyard. made by rituraj sapkota as part of an honours programme, sharnarthi deals with the issue of ethnic nepali bhutanese refugees in nepal, and then in aotearoa new zealand. bhutan is georaphically close to north east india, and i knew many people from that lovely country as a student. pity it has taken so long to hear about this!
the film, like watani habibi i wrote about earlier, struck me as remarkably lacking in anger, at least on the surface. there was a lot of laughter, situational as well as on-screen. i tend to be an angry person, and this tone of gentility first irritated (where were the protest slogans, dammit!) and then charmed me.
the primary question the filmmaker seemed to be asking is one i can relate to very well: where am i from? even though the refugees are ethnic nepali, they consider themselves bhutanese, and taught the children the bhutanese national anthem. some of them, like rituraj, moved to india, and as refugees recognised by the UN are being resettled in other countries including the US, canada, australia and aotearoa new zealand. as a geographically mixed-up person myself, i have some empathy for the questions of identity this raises. where does one belong? what does one call home? as one of those interviewed in the film says, he considers himself a bhutanese nepali, but does not have citizenship in either bhutan or nepal. what he does have in permanent residency in aotearoa new zealand, and as any migrant will attest, that is no less fraught. this was underscored by the comments of another interviewee, who pointed out that once a humanitarian solution (relocation to a third country) had been reached the world would no longer care about a political/ideal solution (return to bhutan).
i loved that the information pamphlet that went with the screening had a few questions the film-maker wanted the audience to respond to in the discussion time. here are my responses.
Q: Does the film bring out the problems and challenges faced by the Bhutanese Refugee community during and after their stay in the camps?
A: it does, if the primary challenges are those of identity and an ability to settle down to a ‘normal’ life. possibly the UNHCR and aid agencies are looking after the more ‘material’ needs.
Q: Does the film clarify the historical circumstances which rendered these people refugees?
A: no, it does not. in the discussion that followed the screening though, rituraj mentioned that looking into the causes and history of the displacement was not his intention. (then why have this question here?)
Q: Do you think the film works for a global audience, both eastern and western?
A: as a person in the audience pointed out, some of the english spoken on the film may have been helped by subtitles. as rituraj responded, though, it seemed a little rude to ‘correct’ the english when subtitling the interviews.
Q: Do you think the film works for the people of the community and presents their case?
A: i asked rituraj what he, as representative of his community, would have us do. he responded that his own response was to make the film, and that he would leave viewers to their own responses and actions. while i respect and appreciate this position, it highlights the fact that the film does not present a ‘çase’. not that i am sure it should!
Q: Does the filmmaker treat, portray and represent the subjects of the film ethically?
A: i think so. it was pointed out by someone in the audience that most of those interviewed were men/boys, and rituraj admitted he felt more comfortable talking with men. while there were sexual attacks on women during the events leading up to the exile, he did not know how to discuss it, and deliberately left it alone. while the film may have gained perspective from the filmmaker’s willingness to push himself out of a comfort zone, i can empathise with the ethics of keeping to areas he felt able to deal with.
and that brings me to my complaint against the film – a lack of depth. i felt that many of the interviewees hadn’t managed to go beyond the immediate facination of being on camera. i don’t know if this was due to techniques in shooting or editing, or even if it is unfair criticism. please remember, i am more opinionated git than film critic!
during the discussion, rituraj mentioned that the indian media largely ignored this issue of the bhutanese refugees, and that in south east asia, if the indian media ignored something, it pretty much got ignored internationally. if this is true, it increases our responsibility as bloggers to talk about things that cannot afford to be ignored. rituraj has suggested that he may try and turn this into a longer production, and i would be glad to watch that when it is done.