Insights into the World

Features Issue 26 Jul, 2010
Text by Cherry Bird

For the film buffs of Kathmandu, on the third Sunday of every month, the Inter Cultural Film Society (ICFS) provides a fascinating glimpse into a different culture, using the medium of film to transport us to somewhere new, and often making us think about some important issue or event. The places the society has “visited” during the almost four years of it’s existence include Tunisia, Turkey, India, Bhutan, Israel, Iran, China, Ireland, Switzerland, Mexico, Argentina, Senegal, Ghana, Lebanon, and of course, Nepal. Many times after a film I have found myself wishing I knew the history of the country or the issue covered by the film better, and resolving to find out more. The stunned silence that follows the end of some of the films bears testimony to the emotions generated by talented and imaginative filmmakers, as the audience shares the lives and experiences of people from different cultures, or a different era. The films also provide an interesting insight into the ways in which art, and specifically the medium of film, is used in other countries.

The ICFS logo reflects the ideals of shared ideas and feelings across different cultures, symbolizing unity in diversity. The overall aim of the ICFS is to bring to the audience a range of diverse feature films from around the globe, enabling them to enjoy the richness and beauty of different cultures. When they started the film society, the vision of the founders, Susi Groli and Prem Basnet, was particularly to give people from Nepal the opportunity to experience other cultures and ideas.

For Susi the idea of a film society stemmed from a personal conviction that people throughout the world can understand each other, through a common sense of “heart”, values and feelings, and she wanted to promote this. Her feelings were crystallized by the experience, many years ago, of traveling in a remote area of Nepal with a group of Tibetan shepherds. The speed of their progress was dictated by the need for the sheep to graze. Spending several days together, moving at a relaxed pace, without any common language, she and her husband were still able to communicate with the Tibetans – “laughing together with understanding”. She felt the strength of things that transcend language, and stored this insight away.

How did it all start?
Prem comes from a background of over 30 years of documentary and feature filmmaking in Nepal, which beban after he graduated from the Poona Film Institute in 1965. He was inspired and overwhelmed by the access he had to a vast range of film classics from all over the world, and the realization of how films can speak to people, especially children. Over his years of making documentary as well as feature films, he nurtured the dream of a society through which people could share the enjoyment and experiences provided by quality films.

The catalyst who brought Prem and Susi together was Susan Fowlds. Knowing of Prem’s dream, when she met and talked with Susi at an aromatherapy class, and heard her ideas, she introduced them, and has since provided hours of dedicated support, including editing the brochures and helping with organization. As Susan herself said, “When I first took Prem along to meet Susi, I had no idea they would be here now, introducing their fourth year of the Inter-Cultural Film Society.”

In March 2000, the first film, “Dance of the Wind” was shown in the Russian Cultural Centre, featuring the moving story of an Indian classical singer who lost her voice after the death of her mother and guru. In support of the principle of promoting cross-cultural understanding, the Swiss organization Helvetas sponsored programs for the first three years. Since the end of the Helvetas support period, finance has become a major challenge, as the society functions as a non-profit making club, charging a membership fee of only Rs. 400 for six films (Rs.200 for Nepali nationals), or Rs.100 for one film (Rs.50 for Nepali nationals). The films are now shown at the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) hall, and the society is very grateful for their support in providing such a pleasant and centrally situated venue. Prem and Susi are working to promote links with the NTB, who have proved very interested in their new ideas.

How does it work?

Prem and Susi choose a batch of six films for each half-year period. Generally these are selected from around ten recommended films ordered from a film distributor. They watch all of the films separately, with Susi acting as the initial filter, weeding out those that are completely unsuitable, then compare reactions and agree on the program. The driving principle behind the choice of films is that they should all have some positive message, which highlights the good things in the world and among people, nurturing the soul and providing an experience to be cherished in our memory. This is one of the reasons for showing only one film a month, to allow time to digest and think about each one. Within this, other criteria applied are to have:

  • a variety of cultures and types of film within the six months;
  • at least one Nepali or Indian film in each batch;
  • some strong story lines and action films and some more “whimsical” visual productions
  • worthwhile and interesting issues highlighted; and
  • a message, not just to “feed the brain”, but going deeper.
In the early days Susi said she sometimes really suffered, sitting through some films that were, for her, bad experiences, even giving her nightmares afterwards, but now they have a better sense of which filmmakers are likely to provide suitable material, and their initial ordering is better targeted. Overall, it now takes them about one month to put together a six-month program, and life has been made much easier by the availability, in the last year, of DVDs, which have good sub-titles and are of consistently good quality.

A Few Highlights
True to their criteria, Susi and Prem have provided a huge range of experiences for their audiences, ranging from the recent screening of ‘Numafung’, a Nepali film set in a Limbu village, which highlights issues around arranged marriage and the exploitation of women in a traditional culture, to ‘The Secret of Roan Inish’, a charming film set in a remote Irish fishing village, which portrays the search of a little girl for her lost baby brother, and the fable of a mythical Celtic creature who is part human and part seal. ‘Escape to Paradise’, made in Switzerland, presents the issue of immigration, through the experiences of a Kurdish family, driven to leave their home country as political refugees, and desperate for the opportunity to start a new life away from fear and persecution. After following their struggles with the bureaucracy and a strange new culture, we leave them at the beginning of the hard reality represented by a high-rise flat and unfriendly neighbors. The somber nature of the issue is lightened by an entertaining production, with lively and amusing characters, who illustrate the resilience of human nature. The Chinese films shown by the society have opened up a culture that few of us have had the opportunity to see. ‘The Road Home’ represents a revival of interest in traditional ways, after the austerity of communism. In the film, a young city man is determined to follow the ancient village practice of transporting the body of his father back to the village for the funeral, leading to the involvement of the entire village, and his discovery of the romance of his parents’ love marriage. The visual beauty of this film is combined with the promotion of very human values. One of the earliest films shown was a powerful rendering of the life of female slaves in an Arabian palace, ‘Silence of the Palace’ portraying the solidarity of a community of women who share a life of exploitation, cut off from the rest of the world. The inevitability of the eventual tragedy does not detract from the beauty of the support among the women.

…And the Future?

While finance continues to be a challenge, Prem and Susi are not short of plans and ideas. A new venture, sponsored by Helvetas, is the schools program, which grew out of Prem’s realization that children would love some of the films shown by the society. He has put together a collection of 15 films of varying lengths, suitable for different ages, and begun circulating a brochure, containing a synopsis of each film, among schools and clubs, encouraging them to order any of the films to show privately. The collection is gradually growing, as more suitable films are identified, and Prem and Susi hope this will enable children to enjoy and learn from seeing children of their own age group living in other cultures, dealing with real life issues and solving problems.

Prem and Susi are also looking into the possibility of starting societies outside of the Kathmandu valley, for example in Pokhara and Dharan, an idea which has been enthusiastically received by the NTB. They would also like to encourage more Nepalis to come to the films, and are thinking about the possibility of providing sub-titles in Nepali, even if only a synopsis, to overcome the difficulty faced by non-native speakers of English trying to read English sub titles and follow the film. However, as it is an expensive process, this would require additional funding. The film society would welcome any ideas for new ventures, different films and access to funding, so please contact Prem, Susi or Susan with your suggestions.

Finally, what do Prem, Susi and Susan feel about the first four years of the film society?

Susi: “No regrets. I have met lots of interesting people, and am happy to see the impact of the films. We are now seeing great potential from upcoming Nepali filmmakers.”

Prem: “A dream come true. I have wanted to do this for so long.”

Susan: “Prem and Suzi have spent hundreds of hours viewing and choosing films; their dedication to the principle of showing only films which fit the agreed criteria has given the film society its unique character. On so many occasions a film from some other country reflected parallels in and changes in Nepalese society.”