The monk who got himself a camera

Published On: March 24, 2017 12:34 PM NPT By: Republica  | @RepublicaNepal

It is not always that you see a monk bag the top honors for filmmaking, but that was the sight at the recently held 5th Nepal Human Rights International Film Festival 2017. After four days of the festival showcasing films from 38 different countries, Shelnang Wamjo Tamang’s short movie Jhalo was picked as the winner in the Best Fiction in National Panorama Award category.

Shelnang, who had previously expressed no high expectations for any wins especially since the likes of Dadyaa were also in the same category, is understandably chuffed at the moment. Jhalo might have been his official debut on the screen but this short film of a young monk in the outskirts of Mustang trying to grabble with the virtues of his new life clearly left quite the impression.

Priyanka Gurung sat down with Shelnang to talk about his intriguing journey into filmmaking.

Saturday movie marathons and how it all began

How does a fully practicing monk find himself engaged in filmmaking? Where did it all start?
I have been a monk for most part of my life now. I joined the monastery when I was nine years old and went through our education system to major in Buddhist philosophy. After finishing my studies, I started helping out with the management of the monastery and I still work there. 

Nevertheless, I have been fascinated with movies for an equally long time. It actually began at the monastery itself. Back then, I may have already been living the monk life but I was also a child. As a kid, the monotony of the monastery life i.e. following the same routine every day, seeing the same colors, talking about the same things made me feel restless every now and then. 

So Saturday was my escape. It was our movie day. They showed us films from across Kollywood, Bollywood and Hollywood for half a day. I still remember that after watching them, I used to keep replaying the scenes in my head for the rest of the week. I really enjoyed that feeling.

So did you already have a dream of directing back then? How did you go about pursuing your filmmaking interest?
I actually never imagined myself as a filmmaker. I was interested in movies but I didn’t think I would ever be capable of actually making movies. 

But since I am helping out with our monastery’s management, I have to work with people from outside the monastery as well. This lets me be more in touch with the outside world. I have met many people from different fields and as it happened, one of them was a director from Brazil who was visiting with his crew to make a movie. This Brazilian director was interested in Buddhist teaching and that’s how we found a bond. 

I eventually ended up being a part of his team and coordinating for the movie. I even made acquaintance with our very own Tulsi Ghimire. It was my first exposure to filmmaking. I would sit with them and talk a lot about the movie making process.

However even after all that, I hadn’t imagined making my own movie. On the contrary, seeing the Brazilian director’s 200 plus crew and learning about the budget made me feel that making a movie was a terribly complicated thing. 

So what changed your mind?
Funnily enough, help came from the monastery itself.  Coincidentally an autari guru from Bhutan was visiting us and as it happened, he was also pursuing directing. He had even showcased his work internationally in the likes of Cannes. Somehow he heard about my interest in movies and called me over.

But obviously when he asked me if I was planning to make a movie, I simply said, I didn’t believe that I could. I had no confidence. That’s when he gave me a scholarship for a movie-making workshop at an Indian Art and Cultural Center.

I finished the course just two years ago. It was my first time formally learning the craft and it not only gave me knowledge, but it shattered the notion that filmmaking was complicated. We had practical runs as well and I learnt that, at the end of the day, it was all about telling a story. I felt this was completely doable and I didn’t know when but I wanted to make my own movie.

On set, messing up cues but finally, making the movie

How did Jhalo come about?
I consider myself lucky because everybody, from the filmmaking circle that I have met so far, has been very supportive and encouraging. I am glad that I am able to keep company of some really talented personalities in this field.

For instance, I met with the majority of the Kalo Pothi team when they were wrapping up their shoot in my hometown of Mugu. From Min Bham to scriptwriter Abhinash Bikram Shah, we all kept in touch and they played an important role in bringing this project to life. 

Initially all I knew was that I wanted to make a movie but I hadn’t settled on any ideas or storyline. We used to meet up at Bham’s house and sit for closed writing sessions. They were incredibly generous with their time and advice. We talked, brainstormed, and came up with various scripts before Jhalo. 

So what made you settle on that particular script?
The original plan was to move forward with a feature film but without either qualification or experience, as per the rules of the Film Development Board I couldn’t do it. I had to start with a couple of short films first. 

I enjoy watching all kinds of movies but the ones that inspire me have always been those films that bring stories that skip our radar to the forefront. You can spot these themes in Chinese art house films or in the works of Iranian directors like Majid Majidi. Even Nepali filmmakers like Deepak Rauniyar, Nabin Subba and even Bham practice this philosophy and I want to follow suit. Rather than catering to what I assume the audience wants I want to share real stories. 

Further, as a monk, this is a life that I know very well. I see myself reflected in the child’s anger as well as the teacher’s conundrum. I thought I could tell this story well.

How did you build your team? 
As I mentioned, I was already getting all the guidance I needed in the scriptwriting department from Shah. We spent a lot of time developing it. He teaches at Oscar and we even held a class discussion around it. I made a point to talk to each member of the crew before recruiting. I thought the most important thing was for them to understand my vision.
As for the budget, I approached my friends who are in business and advertising world. I was very straightforward with them. I told them that I was making a movie and needed financial support. They had their doubts initially but eventually they came on board. For instance, I actually wanted to shoot in Kathmandu so that we could reduce the costs. But it was them who insisted that I don’t sell the story short and choose a location like Mustang that complements the script well. And that’s what we did.

When you finally started the shooting process, how was it being the director of a movie?
I remember messing up the order of the  ‘sound, camera, action’ cue on the first day itself. I found the task so burdensome, that I ended up giving the responsibility to another member of the directing team. I wanted to concern myself with the actors’ performance and the scenes that were being played on camera. We were a crew of 20-25 people and there was such positive energy among us that I believe you can sense it in the final product as well.

As for being the director, I learnt from experience that your vision is very important. It’s really hard to concentrate when you are on location and you have a hundred and one things to look after. Also everybody has suggestions. From the plots to little things like whether the character should put on a hat, everybody will have an opinion and while it is wise to listen, it’s you, the director, who has to be strict with the final decision. So if you don’t have a vision, it’s very easy to lose the plot. 

So you could say this movie turned out to be quite the learning experience?
Jhalo for me turned out to be a six-year filmmaking course that students normally take. Sometimes I even wonder if I am cheating the audience by showcasing a movie that was a learning process. Nevertheless, the knowledge that I have gained from it can’t be replaced. I sat through each stage of the process during post-production as well like color correction, sound design, editing and learnt a lot that way too.

There are still many stories I want to tell – ones I don’t quite know how to articulate yet. Still I feel it in me. There is also so much of the Buddhist philosophies and teachings that haven’t been captured on screen yet. I am keeping those aside for later – for when I develop my skills and can do them justice. There is always that fear of your audience not being able to relate with these kinds of subjects so I want to become a better storyteller. I am working on as many ideas and scripts as I can at the moment.

You obviously plan to continue with filmmaking but what about your role as a monk? Do you plan to continue with that way of life?
Not only have I learnt a lot, I have actually found freedom in this lifestyle. If I lived a regular life, I don’t think I would be able to immerse myself in this art of filmmaking as I am able to at the moment. I often wonder how my friends with their family, children and obligations are handling the responsibilities while pursuing their movie dreams.
I think filmmaking is an incredibly sensitive issue. You have to fully commit yourself to bring out the life in your scripts and characters. To me, it almost feels like a form of meditation. I know I am on the right path so I don’t have plans to change my lifestyle. 

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