Toronto's first Nepal film festival features female fare

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Just before the Christmas holidays in 2008, I was amazed to be sitting in an auditorium in Nepal screening my documentary Twin Trek at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival. It was also there that I was privileged to view -- or rather, experience -- The Sari Soldiers among a rowdy, animated crowd of 1,000 Nepalis.

I'm pleased to reveal that this enthralling and exhilarating 92-minute documentary, by American director Julie Bridgham, is coming to Toronto for the city's first ever Nepali Film Festival -- unspooling on Feb. 13th (full disclosure here, I am one of the three programmers of the festival). Bridgham will also be attending the screening.

Nepal, a land-locked country of 30 million bordered by India and Tibet, boasts some 90 ethnic groups with a predominance of Hindus and a sprinkling of Buddhists. It's only just digging out of a brutal 10-year Maoist insurgency, ending in a peace deal in 2006 but leaving approximately 12,000 people dead and 100,000 people displaced.

Sari Soldiers explores the experiences and hopes of six women over a three-year period as the country's Maoist uprising peaked and then came to an end.

The perspectives include that of a fierce Maoist rebel, a young Nepalese soldier, a student leader, a monarchist, a human rights lawyer and a village woman whose daughter was taken away by the army, disappearing into the morass of war. As with all good documentaries, the truth lies in grey areas.

Bridgham, who spent five years on and off in Nepal working on documentaries, was blessed by circumstances which propel the stories of each of the women. I'll never forget the astonishing seat-of-your-pants footage of student protests in the streets of Kathmandu, captured by cameras right in the middle of the frenzied fray.

Back in December 2008, I recall eating my hotel breakfast with the New York-based Bridgham -- a vivacious, friendly woman -- who said the violent protest shots were serendipitous as she was only attempting to film some of the daily demonstrations that were happening in the streets.

There are amusing moments and of course, devastating things that occur in the film. The experience of Sari Soldiers is a bit like the country itself: colourful, wild and sad.

An all-female Everest mission

Another superb female-focused film on the docket is Daughters of Everest, a captivating journey caught on camera of the first expedition of Sherpa women ever to climb Everest. Directors Ramyata Limbu and Sapana Sakya have created a piece that examines all the societal pressures and cultural mores that haunt the women attempting the climb.

Apparently, Sherpa women are often shunted to the side when it comes to mountaineering. The Himalayas attract climbers from around the world and garner attention for the countless outsiders that have clawed their way to the top of Everest with the resolute support of their many male Sherpa guides.

The documentary shifts into high gear as the women get closer to their goal and the mission hits twists and turns -- one wonders, will they ever make it? With only two weeks of training, there's plenty of drama outdoors and internally, as the women battle the elements, each other as well as their personal demons.

One of the few dramatic fiction films in the lineup is Silent Monsoon, a half hour film exploring the struggle of women living in rural villages -- many of whom battle sexual exploitation and male domination on a daily basis.

Featuring two of Nepal's best-known actresses, Subhadra Adhikari and Nisha Sharma Pokharel, the film focuses on a family whose business is prostitution. At the heart of the plot is the desire for one woman to release her 12-year-old daughter from her fated path.

Directed and scripted by Pravesh Garung, the movie comes to a dramatic end as the main character figures out a way for her daughter to be liberated.

The film has particular resonance when one reads from the director's statement about his inspiration for making the film:

"This is a tribute to my mother, Durga, for her courage to live a life on her own terms and allowing me the freedom to explore the world."

Toronto's Nepali Film Festival launches with the fascinating Return to Nepal (by Toronto's Robert Lang), starring Canada's troubadour of conscience, Bruce Cockburn. It follows the musician upon his return to the country, on behalf of the non-profit organization USC, some two decades later to see what projects have sprouted and flourished. There's even a tango scene!

So, if you're in Toronto on Saturday Feb. 13, come celebrate Nepal at Innis Town Hall at the University of Toronto. Some cultural events are also included in the evening. For more information, check out the festival's website.

For those of you outside Toronto, watch for these films at art house cinemas and video stores near you.

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