As soon as we were ready to start, the village was swept away by an earthquake.
A remote mountain village in Nepal forms the backdrop to the struggles of three generations of Nepalese: the cantankerous, conservative older generation who would prefer to continue with the caste system and oppression of women; former combatants from the recent civil war who have not yet buried the hatchet; and the children, who just want to play together.
In Deepak Rauniyar’s White Sun, three generations of Nepalese represent the difficult transition to a functioning democratic republic after years of civil war (1996 to 2006) and the shaky political situation that followed.
Conservative older people, who think women should know their place. The Maoist revolutionaries and traditional monarchists who fought one another in the war and still nurse simmering resentments. And the children, who don’t really understand what everyone is so angry about and – caste or no caste – just get on with playing together.
All of this is distilled into a single, remote village in the Nepalese mountains – a village like that where director Rauniyar, who now lives in New York, himself grew up. A former Maoist fighter returns after ten years to carry his deceased father, as tradition dictates, down a steep mountain track to the river at the bottom. He has to do this with his brother, a royalist sympathiser, and they argue every step of the way.
In contrast to all the underlying animosity, the environment where you filmed is stunningly beautiful. Did you ever consider portraying the landscape in a more sombre light?
“I made a very conscious choice not to do that. The landscape in the film is extremely beautiful because I wanted to stress that the problem lies with the people, not with the country itself. But the interiors of the houses do represent the characters’ personalities. For the female character Durga, I lit this with a nice, warm light because she doesn’t have any psychological problems. Psychologically, she is not weak. She is a strong woman. She is prepared to fight anyone, anywhere. The trouble is, even after the civil war, as a mother she still doesn’t have the right to give her daughter civil rights. But this problem isn’t of her making – it comes from the society.”
The mountain village where you film determines the atmosphere of the film to a large extent. Was it difficult to find this place?
“Very difficult. It had to be remote and small, but accessible enough that we could get there with our equipment. When we finally found a suitable village – close to Kathmandu and not too far from a road – it was swept away by a big earthquake. So there we were, ready to film, but suddenly we had no village. So we had to start searching all over again. We found another one, but it was always difficult to find all the locations we needed. A lot of the people, for example, didn’t want a body to be carried out of their home if someone hadn’t really died – even if it was just a dummy. This was something really bad for them. Luckily, we eventually found someone who was alright with it.”
Most films in which tradition is overshadowed by modernity show a few positive aspects of the old traditions. In your film, the traditional values of the villagers seem only to form obstacles.
“I didn’t feel any need to present a well-balanced discussion of traditions. In my film, they represent what we are going through politically at this point time in our country. The body represents the dead culture, which is being taken to be buried. For example, the point when the body blocks the mountain path – then you have only two options: either you destroy the traditions or you go around them. Otherwise you are stuck. And this is what has happened in our country. We are stuck in traditions; locked up in the past. We have to free ourselves from this.”
But the new Maoist leaders – who won the civil war – don’t come out of White Sun very well either.
“My protagonist Agni still believes in the Maoist ideals. He also still believes in what he did during the civil war. This is why the scene is so important where he meets his old commanding officer again, who has had himself flown in by helicopter for his son’s wedding – at the governments’ expense! For me, he represents the politicians who people thought were fighting the war to improve the country, but who changed as soon as they got into power. And who therefore betrayed people like Agni.”
In your film, hope comes from the youngest generation.
“It had to be like that – I didn’t want to make a sad film. These children were born after the war. They don’t have the same basis for discrimination. They don’t know the caste system. They can leave that all behind and work towards the future together. In true cooperation.”
White Sun had its Dutch première at IFFR and was supported by our Hubert Bals Fund. The film will screen in Dutch cinemas from 26 October 2017.
Photo in header: Beeld in header: Deepak Rauniyar op IFFR 2017 © Joke Schut. Tekst: Kees Driessen.