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The flags of their fathers

Kesang Tseten's latest film, Who Will Be a Gurkha, is one of 16 feature-length documentaries selected in the main competion of the 24th International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA), Europe's largest and most prestigious venues for documentaries.

The film looks at the selection process of Gurkha recruitment in which every year 10,000 young Nepali men vie for the 200 or so openings in the British Army which has been recruiting soldiers from Nepal for 200 years, ever since the end of the Anglo-Nepal Wars of 1814-16.

Gurkha recruitment elicits sharp, divided opinion in modern Nepal. Some say dying for another country is shameful and should be stopped, while others believe recruitment in the British Army offers employment, and the chance to uphold the Gurkha reputation as brave, loyal, and skilful soldiers.

Tseten's film does not take up these issues, but simply observes and documents the entire process of recruiting which lasts several months in Pokhara's lush British Gurkha camp. In the end, 500 potential recruits are left standing of which only 176 are chosen. Tseten employs his trademark filmmaking style: there are no characters in the usual sense, though some are recognisable, no interviews to the camera, no script, and no voiceover explaining what is happening. It is an exercise of observing the action as it unfolds, and then seeing what yields, a method known as 'direct cinema' by its most famous proponents Frederick Wiseman and the Maysle brothers.

"There are two basic ways we learn about people," Tseten told us before flying out to Amsterdam this week, "one by listening to them tell us about themselves, and the other by watching them do things. Both are legitimate and effective, but this time I chose the latter."

Tseten added: "These young guys are undertaking a potentially life-transforming series of tests, so it wasn't fair to put them under the gun, as it were, by interviewing them." In the film, the recruits do interact with the British and Nepali Gurkha officers and among themselves. "I try not to interfere, so people can make sense of what they see and hear for themselves," he explained.

The film depicts the unique nature of the British Gurkha, with the British state as employer and ordinary Nepalis as job applicants. Tseten said: "It is in a way the less dramatic story, which might have been about Gurkha exploits on the battlefield, but it is also the less usual story."

The film is less explicit, less arced, less story-ed, nor does it declare a position of endorsing recruitment or being against it. But there is a point of view, or varied points of view, which Tseten aims for in his films, and it lies in the capture and illumination of moments and details. The interweaving of archival footage from the Gurkha Museum and the Imperial War Museum in the UK leaves viewers to respond to the film in their own way.

It is fitting that the film, made from grants by the IDFA Fund, the Sundance Institute, and the Busan International Film Festival and by Finnish and Norwegian support, is premiering at IDFA, where creative documentaries take centre stage and form is as important as content.

The Amsterdam festival, 14-25 November, draws thousands of documentary lovers and industry professionals from television, film festivals, film markets, and sales and distribution, and Who Will Be a Gurkha will be premiered on 16 November. The film will also be screened in Nepal at KIMFF 2012 from 7-11 December.

See trailers from other documentaries by Kesang Tseten

Karma - Journey to Consciousness

We corner people

Machhendranath: on the road with the red god

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)