Striking a delicate balanceThe documentary Drawing the Tiger opens with a sweeping vista of silhouetted hills, as far as the eye can see. The morning sun illuminates the dusky hills. Birds are chirping, roosters crowing, chicks peeping,
The documentary Drawing the Tiger opens with a sweeping vista of silhouetted hills, as far as the eye can see. The morning sun illuminates the dusky hills. Birds are chirping, roosters crowing, chicks peeping, and children reading aloud from textbooks. Morning has graced the village of Bahunchhura, located somewhere in the central hills of Nepal. A beautiful, ruminating soundtrack infuses the scene and a voiceover narrates: “My name is Shanta Darnal and I am 15 years old. My village lies between the hills. There are hills all around and my village is in the middle.”
The film continues as the camera pans inside and outside the Darnal household: there’s a water buffalo being milked in the animal shed, maize being ground in the jato, a golden fire being stoked in the kitchen, people sipping teas from stainless steelcups. Clear, brightlight enters the Darnals’ home. One of Shanta’s little sisters climbs through a low window into the house. She pauses and smiles at the camera. The ruminating music continues along with Shanta’s voiceover: “I used to live there with my mummy and daddy, and my little brothers and sisters.”
Drawing the Tiger is an ambitious and intimate portrait of Shanta Darnal and her family, filmed over seven years. The feature-length documentary is co-directed and co-produced by Seattle-based Amy Benson and Scott Squire, and co-directed by Kathmandu-based Ramyata Limbu. The film premiered at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto last May. It will premiere in Nepal at the Film South Asia 2015, in Kathmandu, which will be held from November 19 to 22.
The setting of the film uneasily shifts back and forth between the quaint Bahunchurra and hectic Kathmandu. The beautiful and bright Shanta wins a scholarship to study in Kathmandu, courtesy of an NGO providing education for girls. For the Darnals, the opportunity is a jackpot: Shanta, the brightest student in Bahunchhura, can finally put an end to their economic hardships. In Kathmandu, Shanta lives with her elder brother, Kumar, and his wife, Rabina, in a one-room apartment. She attends a ‘boarding’ school, which in fact is no more than a compound with a muddy courtyard, and an elongated one-storey brick building with broken windows; the school is equipped with computer books, but it has no computers.
The filmmakers, Benson and Squire, were in Kathmandu in 2010 because they had been commissioned by the aforementioned NGO to make a promotional documentary—about Shanta, the young Dalit girl, and the education that could change her fate. A year after the filming of the promotional video, the American filmmakers received an unfortunate phone call in the US. At the tender age of 16, Shanta had committed suicide. And no one knew why. Despite the NGO’s initial resistance, the filmmakers continued with the film in the hopes of finding what had gone wrong.Benson, who worked as a schoolteacher for 10 years puts it this way: “When Shanta died, I was angry at myself. I feel like I should have recognised the pain she was in.”
Drawing the Tiger is a challenging project. It deals with the sensitive subject matter of the suicide of the key protagonist. Additionally, the filmmakers are educated, urban denizens, financially better off than the Darnals, and in Benson and Squire’s case they are Americans. Was it insensitive of the filmmakers to pursue the film? How important was it for the story to be told? Who has the right to tell this story? Have the filmmakers approached the subject matter sensitively? And to be fair to the filmmakers, would we know about this story if it were not for the film?
“To balance that desire for a good story and telling it sensitively, with empathy, and having the protagonists fully on board, is a challenge,” says co-director Ramyata Limbu. “It has to be a two-way understanding and there has to be openness.”
The latter part of the film focuses on the healing process. The Darnals ask themselves why Shanta chose such a path. Guilt intermingles with grief. The family and the filmmakers try to piece the puzzle together. Kumar, Shanta’s brother, says, “It is difficult to tolerate life’s pressure every day, every minute. Actually, this is the main reason for my sister’s suicide.” Shanta’s mother blames herself and the family. Shanta’s father tries his best to console the family with the Nepali adage: “Whatever was written in your fate, that’s all you get, nothing more.”
The film does not provide answers. The filmmaker’s intent is not to play detective. They want to tell a compelling story of dreams that were unexpectedly shattered. In the process, the film triggers several important questions. Why do so many young girls commit suicide in Nepal every year? How effective was the NGO programme that uprooted Shanta from her village and brought her to Kathmandu? Are the millions of dollars of aid that pour into Nepal making a meaningful impact? What were the pressures heaped by a patriarchal society upon Shanta? Did Shanta’s caste play a role? How would a young Dalit girl from a rural family fare in an environment such as Kathmandu? What role did the historic and systemic discrimination faced by Dalits play in the Darnal’s circumstances and their humble dream of educating Shanta?
Over time, the Darnals slowly put behind the past and move on with their lives. They keep on tending their land that yields so little. Shanta’s father continues his waning blacksmith trade in a time when the demand for sickles and other agrarian tools has diminished. Days become nights and nights become days. Seasons change and they return. The Darnals continue to plant maize in April. Shanta’s younger brothers and sisters focus on their studies. Maybe they will achieve what Shanta could not. In the meantime, the Darnals continue to look for newer opportunities. They believe there must be something out there to alter their circumstances. You respect their resiliency. Every once in a while, in the midst of working the fields or when the breeze sways the yellow mustards, they must stop and think of Shanta and her beautiful radiating smile. But they must continue, for soon it will be night. And tomorrow light.
May Shanta rest in peace!
Drawing the Tiger will have its Nepal premiere at Film South Asia 2015 in Kathmandu, taking place from Nov 19 to 22. (Lawoti is a Nepali photographer based in Toronto).