Fidel Devkota was born in Nepal’s Gorkha district, which is home to some of the tallest mountains on earth. The district has three of the world’s 14 peaks above 8,000 m, including Annapurna, which peaks to a height of 8,091 m. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that the mountains play a major role in his work as a filmmaker. Devkota, however, is a filmmaker with a difference: he uses cinema to fight climate change in the Himalayas.
“Numerous studies, as well as physical evidence and ground realities signal that climate change is adversely affecting the Himalayan region,”says Devkota, whose debut feature film project based on environmental degradation in the Himalayas is part of the Cannes film festival’s L’Atelier programme this year. “The impact of climate change in the Himalayas will have catastrophic consequences not only in the region, but also beyond because the Himalayas feed major rivers such as the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Indus, supporting more than half of the humanity,” he adds.
Titled Kangling (Bone Trumpet), the Nepalese language film by Devkota is among 15 projects from around the world selected by the Cannes festival to promote creation of new works. The selection enables the films’ directors to meet film professionals to seek funding and festival premieres. L’Atelier selection has two films from the subcontinent—Kangling and Wakhri by Pakistani director Iram Parveen Bilal—besides another from Myanmar.
Devkota is trained to talk about climate change. An environmental anthropologist with a PhD degree, he conducts research in climate change, migration and Himalayan anthropology. His research has made him aware of the absence of a realistic portrayal of the dangers facing the Himalayas. “On the screen, we only see the romantic portrayal of the mountains. I am not saying this is bad, but I want to present the mountains and the Himalayas as I have seen or experienced them,” he adds.
The Cannes festival, which began on May 14, has put climate change on the agenda. The festival opened with an apocalyptic film on climate change. The Dead Don’t Die by American director Jim Jarmusch tells the story of a sleepy village in the United States overrun by the dead. The zombie film, which has an ensemble cast of Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Selena Gomez, Steve Buscemy, Danny Glover and Iggy Pop, is about polar fracking knocking the earth off its axis, leading to the dead waking up in graves. The film uses the climate change denials of American President Donald Trump and his energy department to drive home the message.
Growing up in the foot of the Himalayas, Devkota has seen the damage to the environment from close quarters. “Extreme weather events are now frequent in the Himalayan region. Drought severity has increased and desertification is rampant. Precipitation (both rain/snowfall) in the region is inconsistent and thus unreliable,” explains Devkota, who has found glaciers retreating and natural water reserves shrinking rapidly. “Depleting water resources are causing acute irrigational and drinking water shortage in most parts of my native district, affecting the traditional mode of subsistence,” he adds. “Climate change is having an adverse effect on the social, cultural and spiritual well-being of my people and, because of it, some are forced into exile.”
His film, Kangling, relies on the spirituality and culture in the Himalayan region to dwell on the damage to the environment. It tells real-life stories of three people—a lama, a nomad and a wandering woman—meeting under mysterious circumstances in the Himalayas. Based on the local Himalayan culture of the Mustang region of Nepal, the film deals with the complex relationship between people and the environment. “The film highlights how the social and cultural dynamics of the communities in the Himalayan region are being affected by environmental and political changes,” says Devkota.
His previous films have also dealt with climate change in the Himalayan region. Wind of Change in Lo Mustang, an 80-minute film he shot as part of his master’s dissertation, shows how communities in the Lo Mustang region of Nepal perceive climate change. His next film, Shambala: The Story of Paradise Lost, borrows from Tibetan Buddhism’s reverence of nature to analyse migration and adaptation. Another, The Last Yak Herder of Dhe, is about loss of livelihoods from climate change. “I have come to the conclusion that the impact of climate change in the Himalayan region is real and existing policies are futile,” he says, adding, “We need a radical alternative to tackle the issue of climate change in the Himalayas.”
Faizal Khan is a freelancer