Kesang Tseten is still silent, but not absentNepal's foremost documentary filmmaker is back with two new films chronicling diversity and transition
Like the documentaries where he is mostly off-screen, Kesang Tseten in person is also self-effacing. In his award-winning films like We Corner People, In Search of the Riyal or Who Will be a Gurkha, Tseten lets the protagonists speak for themselves.
He is now putting finishing touches on two new films: one about people in remote corners of the Himalaya, and another profiling Nepalis in the heart of New York.
Like his other work, both films are about people and places in transition. The technique is the same: following characters as they go about their everyday lives. The director’s inputs are evident only in the editing.
Tseten’s trademark is his ability to deliver the most impact while keeping himself in the background: silent but not absent.
His documentary, Trembling Mountain, was an intimate portrayal of the survivors of the earthquake-avalanche in Langtang in 2015. In this and his other films, Tseten dives right in, showing the raw reality of life from the perspective of those most affected by calamities, conflict, injustices or neglect.
The film-making has a light touch, and this allows the director to deliver the message without being prescriptive or polemical, and ultimately brings out the stories of survival and inner strength of individuals in communities facing wrenching change.
“Filmmaking is a powerful tool. It is more than just collecting information and stating facts, it captures emotions, allowing us an in-depth look,” says Tseten, who now lives in Berne.
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We Corner People is a simple story of villagers in Rasuwa and a bridge they built. As Stacy Leigh Pigg of Simon Fraser University noted in a review: ‘Kesang Tseten’s decidedly non-preachy documentary is a subtle, multi-dimensional film telling the story of the bridge, not as a monumental or heroic achievement, but as an event that occurs within a local social history … told entirely without romance, false egalitarianism, or teleological overtones.’
One of Tseten's two new documentaries, Diversity Plaza, about the Nepali immigrant community in Jackson Heights in New York follows the same technique. This ‘unprompted’ style is modelled after American filmmaker Frederick Wiseman.
“There is no wrong or right technique. In Trembling Mountain we had to ask questions of the survivors in Langtang, there were no houses standing to document, we didn't also want to be voyeurs,” he says.
But in In Search of the Riyal there is no script, and the director had no idea what would happen as he filmed. He explains: “We just followed the characters as things happened to them, an example of show, don't tell.”
A lot goes into how the crew also approaches the people being filmed. Tseten chooses to keep it simple, and let them know what they are doing without making a big deal out of it.
He does not prompt the characters to act a certain way, and this is reflected in the final cut where they are natural, and not at all camera-conscious.
Tseten's newest documentary is on the Bön Po, the animist faith of Nepal’s trans-Himalayan region that predates Buddhism. The central character is a 75-year-old Lama in Lubra of Lower Mustang.
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“He is waiting for his son to return to continue in the family line, but his son is a sushi chef in New York who does not seem all that eager to return,” adds Tseten.
Lubra, a village of 15 families entirely Bön, is located near a river that has seen climate change-induced glacial floods.
“The film is an attempt to capture this rugged region, its subsistence way of life and fragile balance with nature in the face of modernity,” adds Tseten.
It was while he was in New York to persuade the son of the Lubra monk to be filmed for the Bön Po film that Tseten heard about Diversity Plaza in New York, with its strong Nepali presence. It was a place he was familiar with ever since he was a college student at Columbia University in the 1980s.
“Diversity Plaza is like Thamel. People are empowered and restaurants are filled with our own people,” adds Tseten, who struggled to fund the film and ended up paying his own way.
However glamorous the world of documentary filmmaking may seem, it is a hard slog, money is hard to find. And once a film is made, there is usually no market for them because audiences do not readily pay to watch documentaries.
So what motivated him? Tseten replies with characteristic modesty: “I do it because I’m passionate about it. I want to tell stories. But be warned, it is a full-time commitment.”
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