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Issue 12
, 2009
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A Life With Slate

Source: Toxics Dispatch #35, Date: , 2009

Dipesh Kharel is a Kathmandu based documentary film maker. His film` A life with Slate’ was screened in the Toxics Link film festival ` Quotes from the earth’  last December. A Life with slate is a film, which is done differently from the conventional style. The film has no background narration. Dipesh says he made this film using ` participant Observation method’. He talks to Bindu Milton about his experiments and experiences in documentary film production


 Could you explain briefly how you came to the world of documentary film production?

I came to documentary film production after I was inspired by my uncle’s work, who is a TV producer and documentary film director in Nepal. I have learned about camera, editing and the documentary film production process by involving in my uncle’s film project. My educational background is environmental engineering but after I involved in documentary film project I found more interesting to be a documentary filmmaker. I feel pleasantly cool to be with people, talk with them and record their activities and bring it to the other people who are living in different context. 

 Are you making films only on environment? Are there films on any other topics or Issues?

I am making film not only on environment. I have already produced several documentary films about the gender issues, sanitation, health and socio- cultural life of people. But, it is true that I am much interested to make films on environment. It could be because of my education background. And there is always interrelationship between people and nature in their daily life. So, if we are making film about people and their daily life, their environment also coming together while we are filming. 

 The film, which was screened in the festival ` A life with Slate’ is really distinct from other films in many ways. It is remarkable mainly because it has no background narration. What prompted you to move away from the conventional style of filmmaking?

Yes, you are right. “A life with slate” is different from the conventional style of documentary films. Because it follows a different production methods. In my film, I used participant observation method with using camera as a research tool. After I studied MPhil degree about visual anthropology and documentary film at University of Tromso, in Norway I have learned participant observation method to make a realistic documentary film, also called ethnographic film. During my study, I have gained knowledge; how to see, feel, taste, touch and make sense of society and everyday life of people during film making and fieldwork. I did my fieldwork, filming and editing based on the knowledge, which I have gained through my study that made me able to produce this kind of observational film called “ethnographic film”. I did not keep the narration in my film because I wanted to have subjective voice (characters voice) in my film; how they define their world is based on their own understanding. As a documentary filmmaker, my role is not to discover new things and make a new story from the particular community and people and keep their visual in a sentimental narration. This will be out of our profession and ethics. Documentary filmmaker has right only to record footages of incidences in a community and organizes these footages in editing system for building the story without changing the originality and reality. Before my study in Norway, I used to make documentary with the background narration. If I watch those films now, I will find lot of unrealistic things and most of the story in narration is from me, not from the characters. According to me those films with background narration could be a TV documentary but not a documentary film. To be a documentary film, there should be reality, subjective voice, and story from the characters. And as a filmmaker, we have to be a member of that society about which we are going to make the film and have to involve in their daily life to bring their real story. I did it for ` A life with Slate’. I think “ A life with slate” is the first film in Nepal, which was produced, in a different style.

  How you were attracted to slate workers and their life?

I met a group of slate porters at my home in Sunkhani Village, Dolakha District, Nepal some 17 years ago. It was unexpected and quite surprising for me to see them at my home with their heavy load of slate. At first, my eyes settled on the beautiful slate carried on the porters’ backs with a head strap. Then, the situation gave me a fascinating glimpse of the slate porters lives. They looked different, significantly different, from the people of my village. Of course, their language was funny to me, but the funniest thing was their behavior and appearance. They looked poor and dirty. Their clothes were covered by dirt and almost worn out. I was quite shocked with the situation but I kept them at corner of my mind. After that, I met them in several time on my way, when I used to visit my hometown. I used to talk with them about their profession, income, daily life, slate mining and their village. They are very opened to me and shared their life story. I was attracted by their honesty and hardworking nature. Since then, I have cherished a desire to go to their village and see their slate mines and mining.  

Could you share some of your experiences while shooting in such tough terrains?

Oh, It was really unforgettable experience in my life. I went there with my wife Asami Saito. She was also involved in research and editing works of the film. She is a Japanese. Most of the things in that village were new and quit shocking to her. We stayed there about two months in our main actor’s home where we shared their food and life. It was really cool to watch those fantastic landscape and mountains but equally tough to walk and follow the daily life of slate miners. The heartbeat used to be on the peak when coming up and down in the mining site. In each situation, probability of death is there. But the mental pressure due to the political situation in Nepal was much more tougher than the physical pains. The place was like the base camp of the Maoist army force. Anytime there could be attacked by the government army. Each day, we had to report our work to the Maoist village commander. They were daunting us that we came there to take their information. And what happed one day, few Maoists came to us and told us to leave the village and they captured our equipments. That was one of the sad days in our life. All the Thami people around us cried and cried till late night. Next day, we had to leave the village. But great things we were able to bring the recorded footages safely. 

You have copied their real life without disturbing their routines. How was it possible? 

It was my main aim to record the reality and make a completely observational documentary. For that I followed the scientific methods in each step of my fieldwork.

From my presentation, introduction with those people, selections of the characters and I involved in their every day life too; in each step I tri3d to be member of that society. Slowly, I got in to the miner’s group. I learned the slate mining and how to carry it myself. Sometimes I used to support them, if sometime they needed my help. They also knew about the camera and its function. Sometimes, they used to ask me to use the camera. So, I became so closer with those people, and then I could be able to get near to the reality. 

 Does the film depict the rural life in Nepal in general or is it particular to the slate workers?

Not really. The social economic level and socio- political situation could be similar with other village but their social cultural practices are completely different from other rural villages in Nepal. They have their own way of defining their world.

 Do the slate workers suffer any occupational diseases?

During my fieldwork, I witnessed several accidents though not very serious. They also told me that few people also died in some accidents in the mines but they did not want to mention it. They think, if Government knows it, they will ban mining and then they will without any employment. These people often complaint of chest pain, back pain and problem in lungs. All these are related to their occupation.

 Does it have any impact on environment?

This is a village based slate mining industry so does not have a noticeable environmental Impact. They have been using all the local tool and instruments with their own environmental knowledge. They think slate mine is a symbol of God and God has made it. So they want to use the slate mine very properly. 

 Whether the slate workers get any government help?

Not at all. Instead, each mine owner has to pay 50 Nepali rupees to Nepal government annually. In that village, it is difficult to see any sign of the state presence. I had seen one health post without any health worker. 

 What are your new projects?

Now, I am working on the film project “A waste miner- Scavenger” (working title) in Sisdol Sanitary Landfill Site which is receiving 308 ton/day solid waste from Kathmandu Metropolitan city. Due to the lack of well management system of collection and segregation at transfer stations, all type of the waste (decomposable, reusable, recyclable) directly go to the Sisdol Landfill Site every-day. Each morning, more than 30 scavengers are waiting at landfill site for the garbage carrying truck coming from Kathmandu. As soon as truck will dispose the waste, there will be a crowd of scavengers for collecting the recyclable and reusable waste, which are recycled in factories in India and Nepal. The Scavengers are working in very poor condition; they are not using anything (gloves, Mask, boots etc.) to protect from the risk associated with hazardous waste. The working condition of the scavengers and the overall situation of landfill site reflect the image of a poor dumping site rather than a “sanitary landfill site”. I have already completed the preliminary research. Now, I am looking some organization to support me for the production and postproduction works.