HAPPY VALLEY CINEMA

For short filmmakers in Bhutan it's not really so happy. But these creative artists are not losing hope
Reena Mohan Thimpu (Bhutan)

While shopping in Thimphu's central market in October, you may well have bumped into a man with a reindeer mask distributing leaflets, and wondered what was going on. The answer is simple: He was advertising the three-day Beskop Tshechu 2011, Bhutan's first documentary and short film festival, launched as part of the royal wedding celebrations.

For a small group of voluntary artists and filmmakers who worked for the large part of this year running from pillar to post for suitable screening venues and projection facilities, sponsorships and free advertisement space, getting audiences to attend the event was a major step towards promotion of alternative films. Any intriguing ideas were welcome and the Happy Valley Theatre group stepped forward to take up the challenge.

Says Ugyen Wangdi, Bhutan's pioneering filmmaker, ''Ours is a country where audiences flock in large numbers to mainstream movie theatres but remain unaware of other genres. Cinema halls in the capital are booked till next year for feature releases; villages and towns outside Thimphu wait excitedly for those films to do the rounds. But for short filmmakers, there are many constraints: no grants or recognition, no regular venues for screenings, no film festivals. All this can be discouraging for new entrants in the field.''

Wangdi should know. He graduated from the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, in 1984 but he could make only a few independent documentaries since then. His films have been screened at international festivals and picked up awards, but it has not been sufficient to make a reasonable living. In addition to working as production coordinator for foreign TV crews, he runs a travel agency. ''We may be the few idealists around struggling to make an impact which nobody takes seriously. Werner Herzog said recently that independent film is a myth. Films are dependent on money and a distribution system. Here there is neither.''

Despite heavy rain, the audience turnout at the three venues could be an indicator that things are changing. "We hope this event will be the spark needed to ignite a homegrown independent short film industry," says Dechen Roder, a key figure behind the event. ''This festival is in honour of our fifth king, for his commitment to films and art. It is the first of its kind in Bhutan and was created to showcase the artistic talents of Bhutanese filmmakers. All the participants are below 30, which shows how interested the younger generation is in art films.''

Short films are unique genres allowing filmmakers to approach storytelling, analysis and personal expression with alternative and experimental methods. ''While they rarely promise financial returns, short films provide a platform to express without the burden of profit or commercialisation. This results in work more sincerely from the filmmaker's heart,'' believes Chand Rai, member of the Beskop Tshechu organising committee.
 

The festival was financed by the Department of Information and Media under the Ministry of Information and Communications. Although a selection of foreign films was screened, competition was open to only Bhutanese made films. Lalitha Krishna, an Indian filmmaker from Mumbai, was impressed by the fact that ''the fiction work was generally non-dramatic in the sense of being non-theatrical. There was no melodrama, no overacting, no complex plotting. Many of the protagonists looked like non-actors, while many child actors did extremely well.''

Touching upon a variety of themes, among other films, The Little Rockstar by Solly Dorjee rocked. The film is about a young boy who is passionate about rock music. When he finally gets to touch a ''real'' guitar, it becomes a tug of war between his love for the instrument and the need to study for his final exams. Khamsum by Loday Chopel is about a young man who finds a child following him around. Soon, the man is drawn into the child's world and memories. The connection between them is revealed uncovering a past the man has forgotten.

We may be the few idealists around struggling to make an impact which nobody takes seriously. Werner Herzog said independent film is a myth. Films are dependent on money, a distribution system. Here there is neither'

Before Happiness explains Buddhist principles simply through a man's daily activities revealing the differences between the ordinary and the different. Speaking before an appreciative audience, Tandy Norvu said: ''I shot the film entirely in my home, and spent only Nu.50 on it to buy DVDs." Adds Dechen Roder, "It is deeply fulfilling to know that Beskop Tshechu motivated two aspiring filmmakers to go out and make The Little Rockstar and Before Happiness. Young Bhutanese filmmakers are just waiting for a platform to unleash their vision and energies.''

In contrast, the documentary entries were only a few 5-7 minute shorts made by school students at a workshop conducted by the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy. Most revolved around the lives of working class people like taxi drivers, Indian construction workers in Thimphu and a cleaning woman.

Says Kunzang Choki, ''I like watching documentaries, but it may be difficult to make them here because many issues can be sensitive. There is no line to demarcate subjects that would be interesting as well as not very controversial to cover. To add to the difficulties, people you interview are also camera shy unlike actors who have practiced their actions and lines.'' Trained at the Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communication in Pune, she eventually chose to open a bookshop for lack of any real opportunities.

Although journalism and TV are attracting new entrants, short filmmaking is yet to pick up as a career option. Ugyen Wangdi says, ''My own children said they don't want to take up my profession because it does not bring in any money. We need to face the reality. The government provides a huge amount of unnecessarily excessive advertisement budget amounting to Nu.300 million a year to support the media. Some newspapers open only to survive on it.''

Jury member, Kesang Chuki Dorjee, agrees there are problems, ''With Bhutan now a democratic constitutional monarchy, the impact of the media is growing. Yet, it remains a difficult career option because of the indefinite working hours. People still prefer the security and prestige of the civil service and corporate organisations.'' One of the few women in the profession, she is hopeful that things will get better. ''Exposure and education in institutions outside the country has led to several thoughtful filmmakers exploring the creative aspects of the medium. The other challenge is the absence of a regular platform to showcase such works. With the introduction of more TV broadcast stations, we hope there will be a bigger demand for quality documentaries and short films.''

The solo two minute animation entry was Sooner or Later, on the ignorance of humans about global warming. Directed by Ashik Pradhan and Kavita Rai, it was again made especially for the festival using personal resources.

There was a special out-of-competition category which paid tribute to films like Ugyen Wangdi's award-winning Yonten Gi Kawa. The first documentary made in the country in 1998, it follows 11-year-old Sherab Dorji and the other children of his village walking three hours to school every day. Nangi Aums to Go-thrips (Housewives to Leaders) by Kesang Chuki Dorjee reviews the evolving role of women in Bhutan. A Forgotten Story by Tashi Gyeltshen, a poignant 6 minute film about a jamjee (traditional kettle) being replaced by a modern and more glamorous teapot; Sound of Time by Pema Tshering, is a 4 minute experimental short on a man's quest to immerse himself in a pure, fleeting moment of peace.

Tintin Dorjee, freelance artist, is a core group member of the festival. His Facebook page has a quote: "To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan but also believe."

The writer is an independent filmmaker based in New Delhi. She was on the jury of Beskop Tshechu held in Thimphu 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2011