Turning public spaces into theatres, and silent musings into conversations
Public space has always played a central role in the Nepali imagination. From dabalis where mythological dramatized dances took center stage to chautaris where gandharvas (minstrels) sang songs of lands afar; from communal satals that acted as open guest houses for travelers to bahals that played host to marriages and feasts, public spaces have in the past been woven intricately to the daily lives of the people. That relevance, however, has been fading with an evolving society. Modern movie theaters, cozy restaurants, luxurious hotels and opulent party palaces have deemed these communal spaces of old obsolete, resigning them merely to history books or grandma-tales.
A vibrant band of youngsters, however, are out to change that.
Sattya Media Arts Collective, in collaboration with Movies That Matter, have been conducting an unique event that converts Nepal’s public spaces into a open-air street cinema that screens quality documentary films that deal with critical issues pertaining to the Nepali society. Combining their passion for documentaries and meaningful conversations, the project dubbed as Bato Ko Cinema (BKC), has over the past year conducted several dozen screenings in public spaces like Maruhiti, Mangalbazaar, Pashupati, Karkhana and Pokhara among others. These screenings have not only helped bring communities together with a movie but have also help spark vibrant discussions about a wide-range of critical issues like development, democracy and human rights.
The most recent edition of BKC has been titled ‘Dignity in Labor,’ an apt theme in the current milieu where thousands of Nepalis are leaving their homes to go abroad to work as migrant laborers. The carefully selected line-up of documentaries stay true to the theme, but draw stories and images from Nepali laborers in Qatar to Latino maids in Spain; from a child laborer in India to chocolate makers in Mexico. These documentaries set Maru and Mangalbazaar alight, before moving on to Kirtipur and Banepa, as locals gathered to soak the stories that clearly transcend both cultural and geographical boundaries.
Though the stories were varied and many, it was the images and tales of Nepali migrant workers that struck the most memorable chord with the keen public. Teary eyes and fervent nods accompanied the screenings of the two documentaries based on Nepalis toiling to make Qatar’s World Cup dreams come true. Everyone in the audience, it seemed, knew someone who had left home to seek greener pastures abroad.
Many silent prayers and well-wishes were sent abroad into the night. Everybody thankful, that these horror stories from abroad were being brought not just into public spaces but also everyday conversations.
These are the conversations, images and emotions we captured at some of the screenings in Kathmandu.
In lieu of the most recent edition of “Bato Ko Cinema” we caught up with the Co-Founder of Sattya Media Arts Collective, Anya Vaverko, for a candid talk about the conception of Sattya and their street screenings.
The idea for Sattya came about over e-mails and conversations about a few of us wanting a place to gather, learn from each other, meet other like-minded people, and just have a creative community to inspire us. We also wanted to share our knowledge and ideas with the community at large to inspire other people. We didn’t know how we could do this, but after a lot of talking, researching, and brainstorming, the idea for Sattya emerged.
I love documentaries and watch a lot of them. Time and time again, I kept thinking, "I wish people in Nepal could see this" because it touched upon some issue that Nepal was also facing, or it showed a different perspective of life in a developed country than what people typically saw, or it was a human story that transcended all boundaries. Films are able to capture people's interest and show a story in a popular way, and I thought people would stop to see a documentary if it was being shown in the street. And that’s how we started...just went to a spot and put up a screen and projected a film.
There is no agenda or specific message that we want to send with BKC: Dignity of Labor. We just want to get ideas out there, get people thinking, and start conversations. In our current lineup, we have films that show harsh realities, films that show workers fighting for their rights, and films that celebrate the concept of labor. I would love it if someone who watched one of the films left for a job abroad with clearer expectations, or if they got an idea for a way to improve things, or if they understood more about what their husband had gone through abroad, or if they decided to pursue a traditional livelihood, or if they treated a laborer in their own home or neighborhood with a different kind of respect....any of those reactions would be great.
But, I also want to emphasize, that our screenings are not only meant to show the rough conditions for Nepali migrant workers abroad. They are also meant to celebrate workers from all walks of life, from farmers to domestic workers to street sweepers. The work they do is so valuable, but often forgotten and disrespected. I hope that BKC: Dignity of Labor will remind all people of the importance and humanity of all workers.
To compare my working in Nepal and a Nepali migrant worker working abroad is hardly in the same realm. I was in Nepal by choice and by luxury, yet Nepali migrant workers go abroad because they are pressed to by economic hardship. I’ve loved my experience in Nepal, and wish Nepali migrant workers were given the same kind of respect that I was given in Nepal, because they deserve it.
At Mangalbazar during the second screening of BKC: Dignity of Labor, the audience was asked to respond to the movies. Surendra Nakarmi was at the event by coincidence. Having been to Qatar himself as a migrant worker, it was needless to say, the movies really affected him. He strode on to stage and gave not just a response but an impassioned impromptu speech to a thundering response from the crowd. A day later, I found him at the Bhajan Mandali at Krishna Mandir and coaxed him to a candid interview.
That was quite a speech you gave to the crowd yesterday.
It wasn’t my intention. I was there by pure luck. But having had seen the horrific conditions being portrayed on screen in real life; I was very moved and got a little emotional. I felt I owed the audience that had gathered there a few words.
How old were you when you went to Qatar?
Very young. I like to refer to myself then as a ‘milky baby.’ I had yet to venture out into the world and come face to face with its harsh realities.
Did you even realize what you were getting into?
Obviously not, or I wouldn’t have gone. I got in contact with the manpower agency through my relatives here though, so I didn’t for once suspect that I would be cheated in that manner.
How were you cheated?
When I left Nepal, I was promised a well-paying job as a salesman. I was very excited. But upon reaching there I soon realized that wasn’t hired to be a salesman. All the salesmen were either Arabs or Filipinos. The Nepali contingent was all earmarked for manual labor.
How did you respond to that?
I fought and argued. Became a big nuisance. Finally the manager told me that if I diligently worked manual labor for 3 months, I would eventually be given a job as a salesman.
Were you given the job eventually?
No. I got plenty of excuses, but never the salesman job that I had been promised.
How were your living conditions there?
Thankfully not as terrible as some of the rest, but the living conditions are only a part of the problem. There is a larger cause at hand that causes the despair.
The loss of dignity. The abject absence of human rights with no avenues of redress. People can live and survive in some pretty nasty conditions, but it is another issue altogether when you are not treated as humans.
Why didn’t more people become a nuisance like you, fought for what they were promised?
Because they all had loans and needed to be submissive. If you keep your head down and keep working there is a chance you will get paid, even if it is a fraction of what you were promised.
How long were you in Qatar? How did you make your way back?
Eight months. All the while I hassled and harried the managers. Eventually they agreed to give me a two week leave because of a family emergency.
Was that easy to obtain?
Hell no. God knows how many shouting matches I had to get into to get the leave. But once I was out of the country, there was no way I was going back.
How was watching Bato Ko Cinema: Dignity of Labor on the streets?
Very touching, as you can probably tell. I am glad that there is a growing awareness in people of what exactly is going on in places people migrate to as labor. It hasn’t stopped the flow of people headed for greener pastures, but I am hoping that they are leaving a bit more alert and aware of the pitfalls.
What words of advice do you have for those headed abroad?
That there is no shame in any work. It is just sad that we come to realize that abroad. If we did the same work here, went to the same lengths in our own country, we would all be living in a completely different reality.
Pete Pattisson is a video and photo journalist based in Kathmandu. His work for The Guardian on Nepali migrant workers in Qatar has played an instrumental role in bringing to light the cruel and inhuman conditions of the workers literally building from the ground up, one of the richest states in the world. His 2013 movie ‘Qatar’s World Cup Slaves’ brought people, particularly in the West, face to face with the harsh and deplorable realities that surround the glitz and glamour of a global event like the FIFA World Cup. The movie also found its way to the screens of Bato Ko Cinema: Dignity of Labor, where it was met with warm applause and nods of disbelief. Here are excerpts of our conversation with him.
What is your Nepali connection?
I lived in India in the early 90s, based out of Calcutta. At the time, I had to come to Nepal at least once every year to renew my visa. That was how my Nepali connection started. About two years ago, I moved here with my family and now live and work here.
How did the idea of working on stories about migrant workers in Qatar come about?
I had previously worked on a project about modern forms of slavery in five different countries around the world. The issue of forced labor in the current day and age had always moved me. Then about two years ago, while travelling through Tribhuwan International Airport, I noticed that there was not just a mass exodus of people leaving the country but also a trail of coffins coming back. Every time I travelled through the airport there were dead bodies and wailing relatives. I wanted to find out what was going on.
And that trail led to Qatar.
Yes and Malaysia. Qatar is in the spotlight because of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Their story has more mileage with the global audience. I have been to Qatar three times since then and some of the scenes that I have seen and the stories that I have heard, have been horrifying.
What was the one most horrifying thing you saw?
To see the living conditions in some of the camps there are pretty jarring. Dozens of people sharing the same room, hundreds sharing the same kitchen; all of them either underpaid, not paid at all or forced to do long grueling hours of manual labor in contrast to comfortable lives that they were promised upon leaving their homes.
My work has also brought me in contact with the grieving families here in Nepal. That is the other side of the story. I was recently in Janakpur at a funeral of a 17 year old boy. He had secured a loan and left for Qatar in hopes of alleviating his family from their abject poverty. He came back in two weeks. Dead.
But I think the existence of the Kafala system, that ties a migrant worker to his or her employer, especially in this day and age is the most disturbing aspect of it.
Yes and I believe it was established with noble intentions— treating migrants as guests and taking care of their every need. But the way it has gone awry in the modern context is there for everyone to see.
One does have to be cautious though. You don’t go around shoving your camera at people’s faces. I personally have not had any problems with the authorities there, but I have also been remained very aware and alert about what I was doing and what buttons I was pushing.
Does the lack of a measured response in Nepal in light of all the stories coming back from migrant workers abroad surprise you?
No it doesn’t. Does it surprise you? But then again, I am a journalist not an activist.
How was it seeing your movie screened at BKC: Dignity of labor?
It was an honor. I have had other screenings here before, but never on the streets. To see the crowd engaged in the movie was great to see. It was truly a privilege.