When we were beginning the first Let’s Talk Men films 14 years ago, for which I did the Nepali part with Tsering Rhitar, we were nonplussed as to how to or what kind of a film to make on the subject of masculinities. In the unique arrangement filmmakers and advisers we were besotted in, we created a space to explore our personal experience on having been boys and being men. We shared scripts and rough cuts, we did our films. But I always wondered if I ever really delivered something that came out of the enhanced understanding of masculinities that we’d slowly inducted. Either it wasn’t complex and I got it but didn’t know I got it, or I didn’t get it.
In retrospect, it was understandable. It’s hard to know what kind of film you can let emerge when you bring a deeper reflection to a subject, then set out to make a film; to know how theory shapes practice and results in a film that is interestingly informed and insightful. Back then, we did a fiction piece about and for adolescents, a story about a boy who was different, his realization that he had to find the solution to the obstacles in his life within himself. Many boys could identify with the boy in our film, and the film seemed to work as a story, without a prescriptive written all over it.
Flash forward to the present, to Let’s Talk Men 2.0, and meeting up with fellow filmmakers and friends a little greyer, I found myself no wiser, even with some years of filmmaking under my belt since that first project. It was a thrill and a privilege to be working together, to talk film and have provocative advisers, but was I wiser about the subject and about the amalgam of reflection (theory) and the film (praxis)?
In the pedestrian vein I am thinking this through, I thought, if gender and maleness is pervasive in our being, then maleness should be discernible in every situation, perhaps as an undercurrent, and it would not be necessary for the masculinities element to manifest in any exaggerated manner.
I was aware I was taking a low-brow stasis, intellectually. When the discussion turned to ‘and so what kind of film we could make’, the common response was: “It can be about anything.” ANYTHING? Well, if it could be about ANYTHING, then any film we made would qualify as having elements about gender, the narrative would have masculinities embedded in it.
But this somewhat wooden premise turned out to be useful. If gender, i.e. masculinities, pervades the condition of being male, no matter who we are and what our situation, I would simply take a few situations and settings that are men-ly, that have the ‘smell of men’ was the phrase that came off my typing fingers, and whatever meaning of masculinities these might offer would be there for all to see.
After playful mulling and choosing and eliminating, as one might do when searching for a film or article title, I identified my men-ly settings: the rotary club, about white-collar professional men, typically successful businessmen and entrepreneurs; men in a motor garage that fixed engines and refurbished car bodies; boys of the upper caste Hindus who lived and studied at a boarding school training to become Hindu priests; and young Nepali men who vie for the few places to join the vaunted British Gurkhas, after months or even years of preparing and trying out. These were the settings with the ‘smell of men’.
Unfortunately, the rotary club didn’t work out, regrettably, as it was the missing needed segment, being a depiction of upper middleclass can-do men. In its place in the final film is a segment about a domestic boy worker I’d filmed on the terrace across my apartment window; a boy who does his many chores, to sweep, water plants, wash clothes, feed the birds in the morning and so on. In the midst of his chores, he would walk over to the edge of the terrace overlooking a field and watch boys play football or karate.
I thought the segments would work better if filmed observationally, thus allowing action to speak, and that the segments and their sequencing gain something that is much greater than as individual and separate entities.
Kesang Tseten is a Nepali of Tibetan origin, writer-turned filmmaker, is passionate about narrative art, slowly finding his voice with intelligent and culturally sensitive films from the margins. His films have been nominated and won awards at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival and FSA. ‘We Corner People’ won the Slovenia TV Award and the Special Jury Award at the ’07 Slovenia International Mountain Film Festival and was selected for the New Asian Currents of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival ’07. ‘Machhendranath’ (On the Road with the Red God) won the Grand Prize at the Kendal Mountain Film Festival (’06), Mention at the Bilan du Ethnographique, and was voted Best Documentary of the Decade by Nepal Motion Pictures Association (’05). ‘We Homes Chaps’ featured at Film South Asia and the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival and is used in classrooms and workshops in India and the US.
Of Tseten’s trilogy on Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf, ‘In Search of the Riyal’, was recipient of the Asian Cinema Fund and screened at Pusan International Film Festival and at the Leipzig Documentary and Animation Film Festival; ‘The Desert eats Us’ premiered at the Leipzig Documentary Film Festival; and ‘Saving Dolma’, a Jan Vrijman Fund recipient, premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA).
‘Who will be a Gurkha’ premiered at the International Documentar Film Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) as a selection in the feature length documentary competition and screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival. The film won the top award at the International category of KIMFF 2012 as well as the Audience Award, and had a theater run in several towns in Nepal.
Tseten wrote and co-directed ‘Listen to the Wind’, a fictional short for teenagers; his original screenplay ‘Mukundo’ (Mask of Desire), co-produced by NHK/Japan and Nepal’s selection to the Academy Award (2001), was given the Best Script Award by the Nepal Motion Picture Association. He wrote the original screenplay ‘Karma’ in 2004.
He is a graduate of Dr Graham’s School in India, Amherst College and Columbia University in the US.