In her first documentary ‘Dolpo Diary’, Prasuna Dongol encapsulates her 2017 journey to Upper Dolpa. The candidly shot documentary captured the realities of a woman traveling alone to one of the most remote areas of Nepal. Dongol’s film shows the dangers and hurdles of traveling alone to the farthest corners of the Himalayas, but still maintains the beauty of the rocky landscape and the kindness of the people who live there.
I started the interview with a generic question; “Who is Prasuna Dongol?” Dongol
responded by saying that she is a very shy-natured person who has the habit of not talking too much. She expresses that although she is very verbal and has the need to communicate with people and share her thoughts, she is better at communicating and expressing herself through the means of visual arts.
In this conversation with Inside Himalayas, get to know the lady behind the lens. How she migrated from a psychology student to filmmaking, her challenging yet liberating journey to Upper Dolpa, her first documentary, her latest film, and how this once shy person came out of her shell to become a confident filmmaker.
Picking up the Camera
Dongol initially studied psychology and sought to pursue a career in child psychology. She recalls that while she was still a student, she used to volunteer and intern at Kanti Children’s Hospital and wanted to continue on the same path. Camera and filming had not even come into the frame at the time.
Eventually, Dongol decided to pursue higher education in the UK. This is also when she decided that study filmmaking as a secondary option. “I wasn’t around the camera too much, but my dad used to have a camera and I thought maybe it would be better to pursue filmmaking as well. I wasn’t very keen on it but at the time it seemed like a good option to have and consequently decided to pursue filmmaking abroad,” Dongol claims.
Right after finishing film school, Dongol felt the pressure of creating something. She explains, “To be honest, I was only driven by the idea of making films. Because the idea was, ‘I studied filmmaking, so that means I need to make a film.” She continues, “I guess when you start that is the general idea. You kind of have this pressure to put something out there.”
As for today, Dongol is more focused on learning and understanding more about the main subject or protagonist of the story. She now believes that communication, time, and empathy is the best way to understand a person’s story or the subject matter.
“We have to forget about the camera. If you yourself are not genuinely interested in them or their story then the final outcome of the film will not come out good, no matter how polished or edited the final product is,” she expresses.
Challenges as a filmmaker
According to Dongol, her challenges have changed as she has grown as a person and a filmmaker.
The initial challenge she used to face back in 2014 was the motive to make a film. Typical filming challenges would consist of budgeting issues, equipment issues, and a lack of team or manpower. The main challenge was to find the right team. And even if she found the right team, the challenge would start to take a social believability issue.
As she explains, “Even if we had a proper team for filming, people would still not take us seriously, based on the fact that we were young. Another challenge that I feel uncomfortable mentioning is the fact that since I was a woman, people would have a hard time believing that I could make a film. Had there been a male cinematographer, he would be mentioned as a cinematographer however, a woman would be called the ‘girl with the camera’.”
That being said, after continued effort, Dongol has been able to make a name for herself as a filmmaker. She shares, “Today I have the right people. I’m fortunate enough to know lots of qualified people in the field. But now the challenges are that there aren’t enough mediums for our products (films) to reach the international market.”Dongol goes on to say, “It’s not that the support is not there, but it would’ve been more helpful if there were more support for the industry and independent filmmakers.”
It seems that we lack the medium to connect us to the international market, be it a producer or a distributor. And the major lost opportunity for Nepal film and filmmakers like Dongol is that no matter how good the filmmakers and their films can be; they are just circulating in the small market in Nepal.
In 2017, Dongol traveled solo to Dolpa. She then produced “Dolpa Diary” a documentary detailing her adventures, the trials, the tribulations, the people she met, and her return home. The film premiered at the 2018 Kathmandu International Film Festival.
Since then Dolpa Diary has been screened at many film festivals inside and outside Nepal. The documentary is widely acclaimed and has received many accolades, winning Best Female Director of the 7th Nepal Human Rights International Film Festival (HRIFF) in 2019 and Best Adventure Film at Kathmandu International Film Festival (KIMFF) in 2018.
While the film itself is a very candid retelling of Dongol’s journey and struggles, she elaborated that while she did plan to go to Dolpo on a solo expedition, she originally did not plan to make a documentary about it.
She explains that she had gone to various popular trekking routes with larger groups, however, the experience had been underwhelming. “When you travel in a group, there are always issues with timing, logistics, and decision-making. If there were 4 of you, every individual has their own way of traveling, but if you travel alone all the decision-making is quicker. So, the difficulty of group travel triggered this idea in me about traveling alone. I wanted to try it and I wanted to see if I could do it and see how much I can push myself”, Dongol explains.
On being asked why she choose Upper Dolpa, she retorted, that the answer keeps on changing. She was young, she was energetic, she had the time and she wanted to challenge herself. With the traveling community behind her and an organization started by Pemba Sherpa and Jason Shah called Nepali Travelers supporting her; Dongol had the support and encouragement to head out into the wild.
While researching the region Dongol only found minimal information about the area. The storyteller in her felt that the stories about the area were underrepresented and it needed to be covered. Dongol explains, “One of the aspects of why I choose Dolpa was that a lot of stories in the media are underrepresented. We generally do have a vague idea about the people, the culture, and the languages of various places in Nepal. But when I came to Dolpa, we didn’t know much about the people there or their stories. I wanted to explore that. Plus, at the time I was a bit naïve and brave (laughs). Today I’d be more fearful or cautious, but at that time, I was younger and I had the mettle to do it”.
So for 23 days, an introverted Dongol was out in the open, traversing an area that had no trail markers at the time. She had no idea where the next or the nearest destination would be. She claims it was a tricky affair but in hindsight, she feels that it was the beauty of it.
Every new person she met, she had to open up and share her story. In an unplanned way, she would be coming out of her shell. And with all the difficult ups and downs she went through, she was breaking out of her comfort zone. For her, it was not about the physical challenge nor was it about proving a point. The challenge was within herself to come out of it as a better communicator and storyteller. Every day Dongol had to talk to whoever she had the opportunity to meet.
One of the most thrilling and emotional moments in the documentary was when Dongol gets lost. In retrospect, it is perhaps the most powerful moment in the documentary but it could have also been much worse. She explains, “It was a very risky region. There are cases of snow leopard sightings in that area as well. If I have to say, I’m 25% brave, 25% stupid, and 50% lucky. I’m glad to say in the 23 days of solo trekking I was fortunate enough not to have any disastrous encounters. Now that I think about it, in a way, everything went smoothly.”
She shares, “While I was traveling, I did not have the intention to make a film. I was just recording myself and about my travels. But on the day I fell and was lost, everything looked like a mirage. I couldn’t tell if the route I was taking was right or wrong. And I was recording myself because at that time I felt very vulnerable and unsafe, and if anything had happened to me, then at least there would be video evidence of my account of what was going on.”
“Even later while making the film, I was not confident if I wanted to put that scene when I was lost in the film. You don’t really want to show the vulnerable side of yourself. The character, the protagonist in me didn’t want to show that, but the filmmaker in me felt that this shot was important” she continues.
After the release and screening of Dolpa Dairy, the documentary and Dongol received lots of positive reception and accolades. It was definitely a proud moment for her and her parents at the moment.
She recalls, “I remember that during the initial screening of realizing how surreal it was to watch your journey as a third person. And to watch your parents watch your film and go through the emotions as a protagonist made me very proud of myself.”
You can watch Dolpa Diary here!
Before You Were My Mother
But we are also our biggest critics. Following the success of Dolpa Diary, Dongol sought to do more as a filmmaker; both on and off the screen. Dongol then came up with her second documentary, ‘Before You Were My Mother’ a visual letter to Ibemhal, Dongol’s mother, who was born and brought up in Manipur. The documentary movingly explores Ibemhal’s life in Manipur and Nepal and explores her individuality beyond her identity as a mother and a wife.
The documentary for Dongol was not just another film to make, but also an attempt to connect with her mother on a deeper level. Not just as mother and daughter, but also as their own individuals.
“This film is about what happened between us. This is about who my mother was before me. So, through this visual letter I wanted her to know that she is not a bad mother, she is just a mother, and today I understand her motherly instinct. And in certain moments, I may not be able to explain a situation properly but this is our relationship and I felt that the only way to show her what our relationship meant to me was through this observational film,” confides Dongol.
Dongol along with 4 Nepali women filmmakers was selected for Sheffield Docfest, the UK’s premier documentary film festival and one of the world’s most influential markets for documentary projects. The festival aims to encourage women who have been working on films or film festivals to refine their respective works, and pitch and find potential investors for their projects as well as have the opportunity to network with filmmakers from across the globe.
Before being selected as one of the delegates to participate in Docfest, Dongol had been working at KIMFF for about 8 years. She expresses that the program was very insightful and allowed her to observe and learn how international film festivals are being organized and run. This also gave her an understanding of the expectations international delegates may have if they were to visit Nepal’s film festivals.
Additionally, Dongol expressed that there are lots of good and interesting stories in Nepal but due to the gap in the market we have not been able to move beyond the local market. “Nepal has lots of good stories and is appreciated by the local audience but I believe that the main gap is linking with the international community.”
What we lack is a wider network between Nepal and the international filming community. If we can establish such links and networks Nepali films and filmmakers such as Dongol may as well find international recognition.
Dongol believes that one does not need an expensive camera or the latest gear to be a filmmaker. All you need is something that can record and great imagination.
“People tend to take filmmaking too technically. The whole process of filmmaking has been too polarized. There is this need to make the final product look good and package it well. People and their context are just tools. And even I’m guilty of thinking like this. But then you just have to be able to look at your subject or the character through an emphatic lens. Be there, listen and empathize,” shared Dongol.
“I think it’s important, to be honest with yourself and be honest in what you do. Be genuinely curious because if you are, your story will naturally be beautiful,” Dongol concludes.