So Caravan didn't win the audience award at the first-ever Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival. Neither did Mukundo. Instead, viewers chose Roko and Adrian Belic's Genghis Blues, already a cult film in the US. Which is fine, as long as New-Agey faux-throatsinging doesn't become music of the month in Kathmandu as it did in New York-New Year celebrations would be depressing.
In many ways, Genghis Blues was the odd film out at the festival. It asked few questions about modernity and as for adventure and physical challenges, let's just say that Paul Pena, the star of the film, was persuaded to sit on a tame horse for five minutes. What the film had, though, was real heart. It tells the story of Pena, a blind African-American blues musician from San Francisco, who stumbles upon some very strange music on Russian radio's world service. Somehow, Pena figures out how throatsingers from Tanna-Tuva, Central Asia, do what they do. Complications ensue, passions are inflamed, and developments develop, and soon there are half a dozen people accompanying Pena to Tuva to make a film about his visit and participation in the annual throatsinging contest. Pena is a hit and in a nice parallel, wins the audience award for his melange of bluesy, improvised lyrics and throatsinging classics. In keeping with American movie tradition, though, there's a little too much explanation, and the film is structured such that there's a classic moment of doubt and conflict that helps develop characters and create suspense about How It Will Turn Out. Of course, it all happened, it's all true, but it's sad when life mimics trite art. One of the real delights for me, other than watching spectacular landscapes go by, was getting a feel for the rhythm of life in Tuva, something the filmmakers seemed almost unaware they were showing or seeing, except through the lens of annoying Californian spiritualism. But this is nit-picking: at the end of the day, it's such a bizarre story, and Paul Pena is such an incredibly astute (and obsessive) person, that it's hard to go too wrong.
The other films were more of a kind and straightforward. They reflected on the lust for adventure, lunacy, modernity, religion and natural beauty. There was ethnography, re-enactment, journalism, drama, satire, essay and every style in between. The Everest films were a hit, and Lost on Everest (BBC), about the search for Mallory, and Everest-The Death Zone were screened a second time on popular demand. It's hard to really say much about films like these, except It Wuz Good.
There were two real surprises in the adventure/insanity category, though, both by Polish director Mirek Dembinski, whose production company is, ironically enough, called Film Studio Everest. Icarus, about a controversial hang-glider, Bogdan Kulka, captured the poetry that is often lost in films about people who do crazy things. Watching footage shot by Kulka and his wife before his death, hearing him shriek with joy, listening to his wife and friends talk about his angst and read aloud his writing on hang-gliding as if it were ballet, you start to understand why this particular man died the way he did, and why he glided in suicidal situations, sometimes dressed as a pink chicken.
Dembinski's other entry, Ganek, was a different order of "adventure film" altogether. A man climbs a mountain solo as his wife and young son go about their day. There's no narration, just the remarkably articulate little boy talking about his father, mountains and life in general, and occasional glimpses of the family together. Once again, Dembinski conveys something of what the endeavour means to the people involved. One often needs to be reminded that adventure and risks are about more than just adrenaline.
This isn't to put down the other adventure films, though: for sheer madness and humour, there was the UK film From Nowhere to the Middle of Nowhere, about two paragliders, one with a video camera, gliding across the Himalaya, shooting as they go along, and eventually landing in Jumla. Other than the slightly inebriated man overheard protesting that Jumla was not the middle of nowhere, this and a rafting film were the only ones set in Nepal that didn't invite real critique or discussion.
Gabriele Tautscher, the anthropologist behind Chickenshit and Ash-A Visit to Paradise was asked, naturally, why she decided to take two Tamang men, Bir Bahadur and Jit Bahadur, to Vienna, and perhaps she ought to have left the question unanswered. Not too many people were impressed by the fact that she and her colleagues learnt a lot about themselves, and her insistence on the charming and instructive "common sense" of the gentlemen was doubtless meant well, but is quite open to accusations of condescension. The film itself was about thirty minutes too long: there was simply no need to show us the Dolakha village in such seemingly random detail. The best part of the screening was having the two men there to answer questions too. Yes, they liked Vienna, but they'd rather stay in Nepal, and no, they weren't bothered by the camera, they said. After all, someone else was schlepping it around.
The representatives of Yeti, the Call of the Snowman, ought to have been interrogated thoroughly, but weren't. A number of viewers expressed the desire later to take them to task for not including songs in the film. (A Yeti-Sherpa duet would've been greatly appreciated.) It was popular enough to warrant a second screening, and was, in its own way, extremely thought-provoking. What exactly were they thinking when they made this film? It started out feeling like one of those old movies based on an Agatha Christie novel set somewhere in the Colonies and then proceeded to enter the realm of the surreal. It is one of the few movies that is all the funnier for taking itself seriously. You have to appreciate anyone who can make a movie in France in 1999 that is a cross between Disney, a western, and pure Bollywood. And about a Yeti, for god's sake. That takes courage, especially having a rather Caucasian-looking Yeti.
As for the makers of The Fish of the Gods and Their Home Is Below Kanchenjunga, it's a good thing they weren't there: they would've been grilled. The Fish of the Gods, a French film about the quest of western Nepali Raji fishermen for the elusive golden masheer, was beautiful to look at, but the voice-of-God narration was nightmarishly reminiscent of bad 1930s anthropology. The same was true of Their Home Is Below Kanchenjunga, which claims to offer viewers a glimpse into life in Ghunza, in north-eastern Nepal, except that it wasn't even particularly visually captivating. Still, I'd rather have seen them and had the chance to savage them, than have had two films less at the festival. As one of the delegates said, "This sort of thing hones your critical abilities and sharpens the eye. You learn to read films fast at festivals." And of course it's a great way to stimulate debate about what films, especially films about people from other countries, from "remote" places, should be like, about how these are different from films made by "natives", and about who is allowed to say what. (It would be interesting to consider, for instance, what "Oetzi", the mummified Stone Age man discovered in a glacier in 1991, would have said about the recreation of his world, complete with grunts, wild animals and shaggy hair, in The Iceman of Oetz Valley and his World.)
There were nearly 30 filmmakers and producers in attendance, which undoubtedly added a great deal to the general atmosphere of excitement. Kathmandu was lucky to have them-the festival doesn't have a large budget, and everyone who was here flew in at their own expense. In return, they saw their films running to packed halls. The turnout was truly impressive, and there was a dangerously large number of disappointed ticket-seekers. But there was some consolation for them: a great exhibit of photographs by Mani Lama, Devendra Basnet, Jagadish Tiwari and Deb Mukharji, the present Indian ambassador.
I learnt a few things at the festival: one, people hate people with all-access badges, and two, never ever tell a person desperate to see a film that they should've bought tickets earlier, especially not if you're wearing one of the aforementioned badges. It can get very ugly. All things considered, we should do this more often. Maybe next time there will miraculously be a larger venue with more than one women's loo.