Although Television was introduced only in 1999 in Bhutan, it will be surprising for many to know that the Bhutanese were already familiar with the art of the moving image way before that. That same year, one of Bhutan’s first documentarians, Ugyen Wangdi won several awards for his film Yonten Gi Kawa (Price of Knowledge) for best documentary at the International Film Festival in Nuoro, Italy, a Certificate for Merit from the San Francisco International Film Festival, and an Award from Indienko International Film Festival, South Korea. It was also shortlisted to the last two documentaries to contend for the Japan Award Prize. The audience rated it as the 12th best out of 200 documentaries, a film that has touched audiences around the globe for its powerful message, its simplicity and its images. A story of a young village boy who walks six hours every day to school and the challenges of rural life in Bhutan is the reality that Ugyen brings home to many.
Ugyen Wangdi is a known name in Bhutan. Afterall, he also produced and directed the first featured Bhutanese movie, Gasa Lamai Singye (Singye of Gasa’s Lama) a story etched into the memories of many Bhutanese. The movie has also been reproduced in contemporary versions as Gasa Lamai Singye 1, Gasa Lamai Singye 2 and Singye Nga Een (I am Singye). His stint with movie production preludes the time when filmmaking was new in Bhutan and the number of people behind the camera could be counted on the five fingers. Ugyen’s family told him that he was crazy when he first took up the art. Acknowledging his invaluable contributions, this makes him the first branded movie director in Bhutan.
Today, he has brought a new life into filmmaking and he does it through his documentaries. He focuses on demonstrating the power of non-fiction to inspire reflection and positive action towards the social life of Bhutan. He does this through the large chunk of rural traditions that he had been preserving over the years. In this process of modernization and urbanization, Ugyen Wangdi doesn’t want viewers to forget the daily struggles beyond the urban curtains – life in the isolated rural vicinities, a tradition that continues to endure.
How did you get into making documentaries and what drove you?
I screened my first documentary in 1974 about the coronation of the fourth King of Bhutan. I was only a class 8 student then studying at St. Josephs College, North Point in Darjeeling. The following year I left school. As a student, I was already exposed to the wide angles of filmmaking because the school had various extra-curricular activities and my passion drove me to the Photography Club. I got exposed to a lot of black and white movies and unfortunately, at that point of time, we did not have sophisticated technologies like we have now. Lagging in terms of video graphics, I insisted that my movie be sent to Australia and process it in a better format. I wanted to show my Bhutanese friends back in Darjeeling the movie I had made but the Principal and the Sister insistedthat Ishould broaden my audience to not only the Bhutanese but to all the students. I took their suggestion. After my movie was screened, there was a huge applaud. Then, the Principal gave me a camera and I became the official school photographer.I spent a lot of time and resources during those days in black and white photography.
I completed my cinematography course from the Film and Television Institute in Pune, India. The Institute where I studied was a three hour drive from Bombay Film Institute and we used to be fed with assistance from Bombay. When I completed my studies, they insisted that I stay back and work with them. There was good money and everything but it was more important for me to come back home as I was the first amongst the Bhutanese to have boarded on such a journey. I told them that I have to do something for my country and my people.
How many documentaries/films have you made so far? Which one do you like the most and why?
See, there are types of documentaries that you make. One of them is educational documentaries and the other, creative documentaries. Most documentaries are not creative and it becomes a narrative documentary because the filmmaker produces those movies that the clients want. These are corporate videos and the particular organization wants to talk about them.
Creative documentaries are expensive but if one can do it then you get chunks of appreciation. Since I already had a firm ground on film making much earlier than any Bhutanese, I knew how to startup and meet the ends. I knew how to play with the structures. I have directed almost 50 educational documentaries. The subjects are vast; I have covered issues on Health, Education, Agriculture and many other issues.
Shifting to the side towards my creative documentaries, I have not been a champion on that. I have directed around three to four movies and those are the ones that have won International Awards.
I have worked practically more with Japanese documentary film makers. When you don’t have enough money on your part, the best thing that one can do is to help others who are doing it. For the foreigners, it is expensive to spend $200+ a day. We know the technique and we are familiar with the facts about Bhutan. In a constructive and collaborative manner, what happens here is that they give us the data and we process it.
For me, Creative documentaries are much better. They are closer to one’s heart and they have a lot of meaning in them. Spooling back to 1995 – 1996, I was working on a project to find out what the health conditions and activities on such were like in Merak Sakteng. I was the first filmmaker to travel to Merak Sakteng. There were challenges filming from within the Indigenous community but the experience was interesting. Once the filming was over, it travelled its way towards the International Donor Agencies for developmental activities and I must say, the response was invaluable.
Your film, Yikhel Gi Kawa (Price of a Letter) has won five International awards. Tell us something about that film and about the experience of winning those awards? What does it mean to you?
If you look at the cover picture of the movie, you can see a young boy along the hills, carrying a small bag on his back walking somewhere. “Neither snow nor rain, nor heat nor gloom of night”, applies most vividly to the four day trek postal runner Ugyen Tenzin takes to reach Bhutan’s capital every month. Lingshi is a mountainous village situated at an altitude of 12,000 feet in the Great Himalayan region of Bhutan. It is a four-day trek through the wilderness from Bhutan’s capital city, Thimphu. 49 year-old Ugyen Tenzin has been Lingshi’s postal runner for 26 years. This documentary follows his journey in the winter when the route is snowbound and in mid-summer when the monsoons lash out. Ugyen spends twelve to fifteen days of the month traveling. Despite the risks and the tiring ascents and descents in the mountains, he plans to continue until he retires. Ugyen Tenzin served as a mail runner for 36 years and retired at the age of 56 in January 2010.
It is what happens along this trail; the human endeavor to sustain and challenge, that captivated me the most. I pinned my decision that this is my chance and I have to capture it with my lense. This gave me the platform to get a head start and thoughts saturated me then and there, to make this into a movie. This is how the idea was born.
Now, let me tell you about the International recognition of this movie. Price of letter was shot in 2004 and since then it has won five International awards in total. The Jury Award Le festival International du film d’Environment in Paris in 2004 was its first success in the International market. Followed by the Special Prize Trento Film festival in Italy 2005, Diane Seligman Award (Best Documentary) at Brooklyn International Film Festival in June 2005, Planet In Focus International Environmental Film and Video Festival, Mark Haslam Award 2006 in Toronto and Grand Prize 20th Tokyo Global Environment Film Festival. It means a lot to me for the film to have won all these International Awards and I must say that I have earned it to call myself the Unofficial Ambassador of Bhutan to the International Market of film making. I aim to achieve an International niche in the market, to have intercultural interaction and to let people know how Bhutan and the Bhutanese are, in short. But the experiences back home are not the same as it is in the International Market.
What do you think you achieve from making such films?
What is more important here is not what you achieve from filmmaking but what you can do in society by way of such films. I pursued my career in filmmaking from India quite a long time ago and I am continuing my passion. This is what has driven me over the years – the endeavor to show that one’s work matters. One of the International viewers happened to ask me this when he completed the movie, “Did you shoot those scenes by yourself?” I had a smile on my face and told him that “Definitely these are all real shots and I filmed it all. Who will do it if I didn’t?” I know he asked me this question, because the documentary involved a lot of challenging scenes, especially the difficult mountain terrain. My team and I actually have been going to difficult locations and leech infested areas so that the geography adds more to the film, and so that you get the best shot in the end. It is all about strong motivation
The movie, Price of Letter was houseful when it was screened in Japan. The movie went all the way to Italy and Australia – Italy even broadcasted it on their state TV. It even reached theatres in Bulgaria, Algeria and Iceland and has been subtitled into French, Japanese and Chinese. I have made a firm hold on International markets and a platform for other Bhutanese filmmakers. For Bhutanese in general and for policy planners and implementers, it is an opportunity to learn more and to get to know about the rural hardships and conditions. And this opportunity has been beneficial. That way, I think I have already achieved a lot.
What inspired you to direct the movie Gasa Lamai Singye? What was the response from the public?
It was in 1988 when I first directed the movie. For me, it was a complete disaster because it was totally new and what made it worse, was that people thought that I was crazy. My own family thought that I was running into financial disaster but I had to do it because my motivation and passion was engraved in filmmaking. I had completed my studies in cinematography by then.
What do you think of the movie making business in Bhutan? We have lots of movies, but not enough documentaries, don’t you think?
I must tell you that we started with an audience who grew with no knowledge and information about films and cinema. The first encounter had been India and since then Bollywood has been a great influence on Bhutanese movies. The sad part is that, that influence has established a pattern, largely to to sustain according to the mass appeal and preferences. As a result, it has given the local film industry little chance to evolve.
What we have here is documentaries and plenty of movies. Now you see, even documentaries are a new concept to the Bhutanese because of the very same reason that I stated above. Making a breakthrough is going to be a difficult task in a society that has been heavily influenced by Indian cinematography.
The movie, Price of a Letter managed to secure a houseful in Tokyo, but it won’t be the same in Bhutan. The movie was screened in the Universities on the East Coast of USA. It even touched theatres in Australia and Italy. But it won’t be the same in Bhutan. Another form of movies with rising influence in Bhutan today are the Korean Drama series and Korean TV channels. They have a sense of social message in it. But there is a large creative angle to documentaries. There is a different way of telling a story and much more fascinating is that International Film Festivals provides one with variety of storytelling. There is a unique style in documentary, the style and the geography. There is a lot of subject in documentaries and the characters views are graciously served. What is important is that documentaries have a larger shelf life. Movies on onthe other hand often lag on this. However, as mentioned earlier, making a breakthrough will be a difficult task in Bhutan.
Which genres are you more interested in and why?
I have got a lot of exposure into International Films and the ones that captivates me the most are the ones that comes from East Europe – Hungarian, Polish, and Czech movies. There are many good filmmakers from Eastern Europe. If they had the opportunity they would migrate to the United States and work in Hollywood.
In many parts of the world, society has always used art as the medium to address many of their social and political issues, and we can see that you attempt to address some of these problems and also just to show to the world the daily struggles of the average Bhutanese man, woman and child. In that light do you think that the Bhutanese film industry is doing enough? Do you think that we are given enough freedoms to explore these ideas and be creative?
When I first made my film, I had no idea that the film would last for a long time. Without the aid of any external forces, the movie Gasa Lamai Singye (the Romeo and Juliet of Bhutan) has become a cultural icon. If one happens to travel to Punakha, there you can still find the house where the real Galemlived. The Dzongkhag has preserved it saying that it is of cultural importance. If you visit Gasa, the place where Singye, her lover, and the Lama (abbot) lived has still been preserved with the same message – it is of cultural importance.
I am very happy that the legacy of my movie still lives. Three has been an excellent precision to this movie, but quite disturbing is the fact that it is repeated again, again and again. This is the reason why we have sagas of GasaLamaiSingye. The sad part is that people have not explored other opportunities into legends and myths, of the kind. I can tell you that there are 101 different stories like this in Bhutan and not only GasalamaiSingye. What needs to be done is exploring other avenues of providing social message to the people and the society at large.
There are restrictions when it comes to publicizing Bhutan. The government would charge approximately $10,000 – $15,000 for International documentary film makers. For feature films, it can cost as high as $25, 000. They say that it is royalty to improve the local film industry but there I see no progress in Bhutanese film industry. People who wanted to come and work in Bhutan have already turned their back because it is very expensive. If you look at the arts and creativity in Bhutanese market, we have tremendous potential but somehow there are always restrictions. For local filmmakers in Bhutan the restrictions are not vast. They only have to put forward a proposal and have it approved by BICMA. These procedures should have been rooted long before though. But what is important is that the ones who have the money are the International filmmakers. What can be done is that the Government can collaborate with the International filmmakers and waive off the tourist fees in Bhutan to these groups of people. Co-productions should be encouraged and then only we will have more people investing. Half of the publicity and marketing of tourism is already completed here. In this sense, we will have more local people involved in filmmaking and in turn, employment opportunities would gear up automatically.
There was a time when Buddhist movies were in the rise. Some of the famous ones are Seven Years in Tibet and the Little Buddha. But we see that such films do not come to Bhutan anymore. We had one recently, directed by DzongsarJamyangKhentseRinpochhe, Travellers and Magicians, but that was about it. I would say that it would be better if we have a FILM INDUSTRY in Bhutan but that can be very ambitious. There will be many people who will be keenly interested in this business then.
What do you think needs to be done in order for the Bhutanese film industry to grow?
Like my earlier comments, Bhutanese film industry need explorations and developing originality. Filmmakers need strong motivation so that there is a strong social message to the viewers. When I filmed the Price of a letter, my crew and I went through many difficult scenarios in the process. This helped to disclose the planners what the conditions are like in such regions. It needs to be more than just a film and the visuals in the movie should tell us everything. It has to be such that without having to narrate it, the movie says it all. It has to be such that we show the movie not just for the sake of showing it, but for various reasons like evoking a reaction.
Do you have another film in the works?
Yes, Price of Rice was my next film but circumstances have made me to not go forth with it.The third sequel is not coming out because Lunana was a very different place back then. It is not the same Lunana as it used to be during the times when technology and science had not been [introduced] in Lunana. Think about someone carrying a bag of rice on their back while travelling way back home in and half of the quantity of rice is already consumed along that way. My plan was to show another child, who in real life used to carry a bag of rice and walk for days. This is not the same anymore.
I have been travelling to different places in and around Bhutan in my filmmaking journey. I must tell you that this has helped me to document a tremendous amount of Rural Bhutan. I am working more on theatrical arenas and the script. These rural archives have been there in the shelf from a long time, almost a decade, now. I have already diffused all these scripts into CD and now it’s ready to encrypt onto hard disk. But there is a lot to decipher and it consumes tremendous amount of time. But once it is done, it will be invaluable. I am just looking for an excellent opportunity.
The work produced from traveling to such difficult terrains, with generators and batteries along with my camera and me, documenting those places is surely going to be a treasure because things are not the same as it used to be before. Now, if you visit those places, you will see that those documented in my lenses are long dead. Normally, we are aware of our traditional tshechus(festival on the 10th Day of the Bhutanese calendar) and other nationally celebrated festivals but we have lost the rural traditions and culture. We have lost to keep track of what actually happens and what used to happen in rural Bhutan. Once my work is released into the market, it can be something of utmost importance for researchers.
Tell us about the challenges and the rewards of film production in Bhutan.
My documentaries have shown to packed halls overseas, but it will not be the same case in Bhutan. This is the main challenge here, to link documentary making to the audience. And this could be done through starting a new Cinematic Knowledge with the audience. The predominance of Indian style cinematography is a major challenge for a small nation like Bhutan. Distribution and finance is another difficult task. I lost my jackpot [opportunity] in the United States because they demanded a theatre wide screen video format, which I could not produce because it was expensive.Film making in Bhutan could not aid me financiallyso I had topursue tourism and trekking to sustain my livelihood.
I have been thinking about teaching documentary lessons to the budding generations because there are tremendous talents that I can see in them. A lama once told me that I am becoming selfish by not teaching my skills to the future generations. For various other reasons, I would like to continue travelling up the hills and mountains and document what’s there because it is better to do it now. We have to know that things are changing very fast. Alongside this enthusiasm, I have my children and my promising parents that I have to care for. And financially, film making is increasingly challenging
What advice do you have for aspiring and upcoming film producers in Bhutan?
What we need is originality and motivation. Not many of the filmmakers come and seek my suggestions or feedback.This is because the kind of movies that they want to show to the public and the ones I make are completely different. As we know that the Bhutanese audience have grown with no knowledge about films and cinema, they will always take the ones that they have been fed.
Even for you all, journalists and writers, you need to move out into the country side of Bhutan and write stories about different people. Like I said, there are a 101 stories waiting to be told.