“I’m learning that life isn’t about the destinations we can boast about getting to; it’s about all the walking in between that feels pointless when you try to take a picture of it because no one will understand it like you do. It’s the in between stuff that fleshes out a story—gives it guts and transformation.” – Hannah Brencher.
For me, these words from author Hannah Brencher so accurately capture the truth of any process in life. I see their truth in the process of bringing DURGA: Forging a New Trail, our short documentary film about Nepalese guide Durga Rawal, to life, as well as in Durga’s own life story and journey to become a guide.
In short, DURGA tells the story of 34-year-old Durga Rawal, the only guide of any gender from her village in northern Nepal. In a country where boys receive an education, men seek employment in larger cities and girls and women are often left to work on family farms and within their homes, Durga’s is a story of defying cultural, societal and familial expectations to pursue an independent life. It is a story of female empowerment and gender equality about a brave young woman who is forging her own trail.
Our film with Durga explores and celebrates bold dreams and the unwavering strength it takes to overcome doubt, discrimination and harassment to break free from the narratives that are put before us and intentionally reach for a life that is uniquely ours.
The process of telling and sharing Durga’s story through film “officially” started in September 2017, though the inspiration for doing so first came to me in 2015. It is impossible to completely capture this storytelling and filmmaking process in words. However, to give a snapshot of our journey, I will share some key moments and takeaways.
'Our film with Durga explores and celebrates bold dreams and the unwavering strength it takes to overcome doubt, discrimination and harassment to break free from the narratives that are put before us.'
In September 2017, through email, Facebook Messenger and video calls, Durga and I began talking to and getting to know one another and discussing how sharing her story on camera would look. As far as I know, there was never any hesitation on Durga’s end. I believe the only question was if we would actually follow through on this - if we would actually come to Nepal and film her story with her.
In reflecting on what she was excited about and hesitant about with regard to this project, Durga says, “I was happy and excited to share my life story. I was, and still am, anxious to see how people respond - what they like, feel and say.”
Since we first connected, Durga and I have remained committed to one another and the different roles we play in making it possible to share her story with an audience beyond the circles in which she runs. Throughout everything, without a doubt, I’ve learned a lot from her - as well as others involved in this project. In the process of making this film, I've learned time and again the importance of looking beyond myself and the narrative I'm telling myself. I've had to see beyond my own fears, insecurities, wants and needs - for the success of the film and story itself but also for that of Durga, the team and our individual and shared experiences.
Following roughly two years of pre-production, our team entered production and travelled to Nepal in October and November 2019. Throughout two nonstop, beautiful, challenging and successful weeks in Pokhara and the Mugu District, we captured what was needed to create our film with Durga, her family, friends, community and a handful of travellers.
'In the process of making this film, I've learned time and again the importance of looking beyond myself and the narrative I'm telling myself. I've had to see beyond my own fears, insecurities, wants and needs.'
Our time in Nepal was incredibly special and simultaneously very demanding for everyone involved. At times it was exhausting, as we were constantly “on” and navigating the ups and downs of storytelling and filmmaking, especially in a foreign country. Even when we weren’t filming, we would discuss what we had and what we still needed while walking to and from the various places we were in, as we ate meals and so on. In the evenings and often into the night, our crew was working on our various tasks and areas of responsibility.
Throughout pre-production, production and post-production, one of the biggest hurdles for us was and is language. Our production team was composed of individuals from Nepal, India, Argentina and the U.S. I was the only native English speaker on our crew, and on occasion we experienced moments of miscommunication that led to some mistakes. While Durga speaks English, we also intentionally chose to film her interviews in Nepali. Conducting all of the film’s interviews in Nepali, with Durga and others, meant we devoted a lot of time to interviews and translation both during production and in post-production.
“Making this film was a different experience from my work,” Durga says. “I enjoyed myself while filming this documentary. Some of it was hard work, but other times were enjoyable. My favourite moment was filming at my family’s house with all of my sisters and brothers.”
Production lasted two weeks, and post-production for our twenty-minute film has lasted roughly fifteen months and has similarly been a journey woven with ups, downs and plateaus. Alan Schwer, our director of cinematography and editor, and myself have been the key players throughout post-production, though we’ve also collaborated with a number of individuals on music and sound mix, colour correction, graphic design, translation and more - including folks who have reviewed various cuts of the film and provided valuable feedback.
Alan and I have different backgrounds and storytelling styles. The key for us throughout all stages of this film has been having a few example films, such as Loved By All: The Story of Apa Sherpa, that have provided a base and guided us as our North Star of inspiration. Beyond that, knowing the story we sought to tell and the story that emerged during filming - an extension of the story we knew and planned for - has provided a foundation for our work and collaboration throughout production and especially post-production.
In sharing these snippets, I’m reminded that it’s impossible to fully describe this storytelling and filmmaking process with all of its peaks, valleys and the spaces in between. In part, because I’ve forgotten so many big and little details, and in part because this has been a constant pursuit for close to six years. In the same way, our twenty-minute film only skims the surface of Durga’s life story and journey to become a guide. What a challenge and a privilege it is to take on this task and collaboratively share a piece of Durga’s story - and the process of creating it - with the world.