Documentary films come of age

There is already an enthusiastic audience for non-fiction film, but more can be done to widen reach

In June, Rajan Kathet and Sunir Pandey’s No Winter Holidays premiered at the Sheffield DocFest, one of Britain’s biggest documentary festivals. The film was supported by South Korea’s DMZ Docs Industry Project Fund and the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum.

In feature films, Fidel Devkota’s The Red Suitcase was nominated for world premier at the Venice International Film Festival and Nabin Subba’s A Road to a Village got into the Toronto International Film Festival.

Nepali films and filmmakers are going places, and many have been able to find their way into international labs, forums, pitches and events. Documentary films have also been doing well, but the challenge is to run and sustain the market for non-fiction film.

That was a theme of a brain-storming last month of film festival organisers, government bodies, international agencies and independent filmmakers. The conversation first explored the lack of resources and probed ways in which the government and private institutions could promote the film industry. 

The two hour discussion at the British Council did not just highlight problems, but also identified possible solutions to push the Nepali documentary market to a new direction.  

While Nepal enjoys good repute internationally, participants felt it was time for private and government agencies to foster a market for documentary film within Nepal.   

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Despite noteworthy non-fiction films in the past few years, every documentary maker has had to work from scratch. For this, international fora have become the go-to for funds, due to their ease of access. 

The catch: competition is stiff and there are many who vie for the few prizes. Success depends on what international viewers want to see and can relate to. This audience is not familiar with the nuances of the Nepali world, and the fate of films thus is determined by its relevance to a world far removed from Nepal.

International funds and programs have played an important role in encouraging Nepali documentary makers, but the time has come for Nepali support for Nepali filmmakers.

Kathmandu Metropolitan City recently handed an application for the UNESCO Creative Cities Network with ‘film’ as its main component. If the city gets the title, that would be perfect timing. 

But even if it does not, it proves that the government is serious about investing in films and filmmakers. This could translate into grants for film production. 

Even Nepal Tourism Board, with its active social media presence and sizeable contributions to film festivals in Nepal, sees opportunities in films. 14 Peaks: Nothing is impossible on Netflix was an example of how the combined interests of several agencies can be pooled to create an adventure documentary that played a big role in boosting tourism in Nepal.

The broadcast media remains a largely untapped medium to encourage documentary makers. Internationally, it has been tv networks and their digital subsidiaries who actively commission documentaries. 

Read also: Documenting the Subcontinent for a generation, Aria Shree Parasai

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Al Jazeera Witness’s What’s behind caste violence in Nepal? and BBC World Service’s Nepal: The battle for souls are examples of how these commissions have come closer to home.

The broadcast media is sustained by advertising. But, while revenue is important, content is still king when it comes to building brands and identity. Herne Katha, for example, is proof of how personal stories not only captivate but move audiences. 

Viewers are now seeking content online, and film commissioning could also make the most of this opportunity to re-brand and fund documentaries that resonate with Nepali audiences.

Nepal’s tv channels could lead the way by producing content for the diaspora who are hungry for stories from home. Tv, with its access to a network of in-country journalists with powerfully distinctive stories could be drivers of audio-visual content. 

Investing in creative story-tellers to create viewership could persuade advertisers to see value in investing in non-fiction film which will ultimately enrich the ecosystem for Nepali documentaries. 

Participants at the brainstorming included representatives from the Film Development Board, Film South Asia (FSA), Human Rights International Film Festival, Independent Filmmaker’s Society, Kantipur Television, Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival, Kathmandu Metropolitan City, Nepali Female Filmmakers, Nepal Tourism Board and the US Embassy. 

Read also: Awakening documentary, Mallika Aryal

The group concluded that there is willingness to fund content and buy content, but what is lacking are linkages between filmmakers and viewers.

Watching habits are shifting to reels made for TikTok and YouTube. Should supporters of films give the audience what viewers want, or what they need? It has become imperative to understand what the audience wants, and to be where the viewers are.

Perhaps not enough is being done to create avenues for audiences to explore documentaries. ‘Dumbing down content’ is an ongoing discussion, but it may be time to encourage culture of documentaries with its point-of-view human interest approach.

The enthusiastic participation of Nepalis at documentary festivals is proof that there is already a critical mass of viewers interested in the non-fiction film format. Film education schools and societies can be mobilised for an even wider audience engagement. 

As pointed out in the discussion, this could be achieved through showings and documentary appreciation sessions, where film organisations can inculcate a sense of a community of documentary lovers. The Film Development Board should now work to create these linkages between local commissioners and filmmakers. They could support bigger film grants and ensure that financing is hassle-free. This could be a viable way to give Nepali documentaries a boost within Nepal in a flavour that audiences here understand best. 

The future for films lies in local government bodies, film organisations and the industry working together to support and create a platform to sustain a culture for documentary viewing.

Read also: How not to make a documentary, David N Gellner

Smriti Basnet is a filmmaker and runs Kathaharu, a production company based in Kathmandu.

Nepali films in Busan Fesitval

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Three Nepali films have been selected for the Busan Festival in South Korea from 4-13 October.

Gaun Aayeko Bato (A Road to a Village) directed by Nabin Subba is being screened for the first time at the ongoing 48th Toronto International Festival. The film featuring actors Dayahang Rai, Pashupati Rai and Prasan Rai tells a story of how a new road in the village changes father-son relations. 

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Gaun Aayeko Bato will be screened under the ‘Window on Asian Cinema’ category at Busan. “I believe this will help in globalising our films,” says Subba.

Guras directed by Saurav Rai has also been selected for Busan. First screened at Karlovy Vary International Film in the Czech Republic, Guras is a story from the perspective of a 10-year-old girl who sets out in search of her missing hen against the economic and social backdrop of Darjeeling. Tulsi Khawas and Kagendra Lamichanne play the leads.

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“Our films being selected for international films means they like our unique identity. We are being screened at prestigious film festivals like Venice, Busan and Toronto, this is a matter of great pride,” says Lamichhane.

The Witness Tree, a documentary by Niranjan Bhetwal, has been selected to be screened under Busan’s Asian documentary category. 

Read also: Lights, Camera, Action in Nepal, Ashish Dhakal

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