When director Deepak Rauniyar first heard that his film, Highway, was selected for the Berlin Film Festival this year, he cried.
Usually Nepali films are Bollywood imitations, and Highway was the first Nepali film ever to be was selected for a major festival.
The film’s theme is one that most Nepalis are all too familiar with: the bandh, or general strike, which paralyses life in the country all too often.
Reflecting Nepal's reality
Rauniyar had made two short movies, and Highway was his first feature film. He did not have to dig deep for inspiration for Highway.
“I experienced bandhs several times myself”, he says, and narrates an example of a 57-hour road block in which he got stuck in 2009, when he was travelling from his hometown in the east of the country to Kathmandu. “For 18 hours, I did not have any water to drink. And this was not even a political party, but only ten drivers who were blocking us. We tried to stop them, but we got beaten, and the police was not supporting us.”
De regular occurrence of bandhs deeply affects life in Nepal, Rauniyar explains. “The current state of Nepal is kind of disabled. When you start a journey, you have to already prepare for getting stuck somewhere. I think it has become a culture. Even when people have a personal problem and think that they are not being heard, they don’t go to the police, but they just come out and block the road.”
One good thing, perhaps, is that it forces people to be creative. The characters in Highway, for example, who are all travelling to Kathmandu in the same bus when they get stuck in a blockade, think of a particularly original way to continue their journey. They know that, out of respect, a marriage party would be treated as an exception by the organizers of the bandh and be let though. So they decide to stage a wedding.
“We have sixteen hours of power cut every day, which does not allow us to do a lot of things,” says Rauniyar. “We always need to worry about water at home, or internet at home, and a lot of the time we don’t have cooking gas. But if you want to go, if you want to reach your destination, you have to be creative and find a way.”
Similarly, Rauniyar found a creative way to complete his film and get to Berlin. With no money for the post production, he successfully raised the required US$ 30,000 with the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. “For our kind of film, getting individual funding is really hard. When I got to know about Kickstarter, I really liked it, because it was not only a way of getting funding, but also a way to get people interested in the project.”
Ironically, Rauniyar almost did not make it to his own premier, because of an Air France strike. He got there just in time to find out that four out of five planned screenings of Highway were already sold out.
“Even after we showed the film, people stayed for a very long time for a Q&A session. They did not have any idea that these kinds of blockades are happening. They were also shocked to see how the lifestyle has changed here. Facebook, Twitter, the way we are reaching out to people is the same way here as elsewhere. That was strange for a lot of people, as they thought of us as a remote country, which had not developed in any way.”
After the success in Berlin, Rauniyar hopes for at least a limited theatrical release of Highway in Europe and the United States, besides a wider release in South Asia. Moreover, he hopes that other Nepali filmmakers will feel inspired to contribute to a new, promising and unique Nepali cinema. “The problem we have, is that filmmakers think that if they make a film similar to Bollywood, people will come”, he says. “But I think that once we start to tell our own stories, we can make our identity.”
Link to Highway's website here.