Interview with ugyen wangdi
the first filmmaker in bhutan
When we think of documentary production in Bhutan, we think of Ugyen Wangdi. In many ways, he is the father of documentary in Bhutan. One of the first trained filmmakers in Bhutan, with 3 years at the Film Institute in Pune, Ugyen Wangdi is also our first feature filmmaker. With Gasa Lama Singye, shot on film, in 1989, Wangdi began his notable career in story-telling.
His first documentary production, Yonten Gi Kawa, took Bhutan across the borders, traveling film festivals and had the world sit up and take notice of the Bhutanese potential for storytelling through film. In all his films, both the themes he chooses to deal with, and his approach and technique are compelling and unique. Even though the general response to his work in Bhutan has been less than remarkable, Ugyen Wangdi, continued walking the lonely path of making documentary films. Today, he and his films stand as icons in our fledgling documentary film industry in Bhutan. Beskop Tshechu was eager to find out more behind Wangdi’s inspiration and experience, and what keeps him going despite the challenges
BT: What was the inspiration behind your first documentary film?
UW: I produced many informational videos, call it informational and educational documentary if you like, on health, agriculture, handicrafts, etc. It wasn’t until 1997 when I visited the International Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam to see how various non fictional stories were told. A major project was turned down by the Sustainable Development Office. We were thought to be incapable of doing the job. I applied for the Jan Vrijman fund from the IDFA mentary filmmaking I produced Yonten Gi Kawa and premiered it at the same festival in 1998.
BT: At that time, with no documentary productions or filmmakers in Bhutan, and the country just getting used to TV/internet (?), what were you hoping for with your first documentary film? Did you forsee a Bhutanese audience?
UW: At that time there was no market for creative documentaries and I don’t think there is one even today in the country. Just to fulfill the satisfaction of some critics I showed some documentaries commercially. I could not even get the front row filled. But it wasn’t the same when I showed in, say, Switzerland or Japan. What is more fulfilling is that you are a cultural ambassador and you are telling a Bhutanese story. We usually have a Q & A after the film.
BT: Many years later, you’re still producing documentary films, have you noted any changes in the Bhutanese audience?
UW: Once bitten, twice shy, I don’t tread the same path. I am not able to tell you the situation today of the Bhutanese audience. I am still of the opinion that there is no avenue for creative documentaries. Maybe, with the coming of private TVs there could be some light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe.
BT: You also made the first feature film in Bhutan, why did not you not pursue the more lucrative path of feature film production and instead turn to documentary?
UW: Feature films required more input technically and more finance. I could make a presence in the international circuit with less money and through a middle end technology. It is the content that matters, it was possible in documentaries.
BT: As one of the first documentary filmmakers in Bhutan, who or what did you turn to for guidance, advice, mentorship?
UW: I watched a lot of international films, not necessarily documentaries but features. In doing so, it was always East European films that made an impact on me. The Czech film maker Jiri Menzel, Hungary’s Istvan Szabo and Milos Foreman. Then Italy’s De Sica’s Bicycle Thief, which I watched already when I was in 8th grade. On the simplicity front, I still copy Ozu’s style of framing. Watch a lot of good films. Stop the film and watch it again, they’ll teach.
BT: What do you think makes a strong documentary film?
UW: For me, its straight and simple stories from a subjective point of view
BT: How do you decide what you will pursue in a documentary? Characters that inspire you? Or themes and issues? What is the first inspiration for you in the process?
UW: For a place like Bhutan, it is just not the story alone that carries itself. The visual syntax must play its crucial role.
Many stories do not necessarily result in the way you have visualized at first. But some times if you study your subject intensely, it results in the way you thought.
BT: How do you approach story-telling with your films?
UW: My successful films have been first person narrative.
BT: This year, apart from student films we’ve collected from the Bhutan Center of Media, we have zero documentary films from Bhutan in the competitive categories. Why do you think documentary production has not picked up in Bhutan yet? And what do you think will encourage more documentary production in Bhutan?
UW: It is difficult to say. We don’t find the money to make the film we want. With eye openers like your festival and organizing an association to give impetus to it, it might help. At the same time, your festival should not be restricted to time and category. You don’t have a choice for a start.
BT: Are there any challenges in documentary filmmaking which you think are particular to a country like Bhutan?
UW: It will take some time to catch on. When I visited the Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival, the Minister of Culture told me that there were fewer people watching documentaries and that they were organizing it to encourage viewership among the youth. The situation is the same here.
BT: How do you see the future of documentary in Bhutan?
UW: There has been no platform to showcase the films. More input by like minded people is needed. I have found it an uphill task. There is a lot of potential, but some initiative must be taken to put it at a firm footing
BT: Any advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers in Bhutan?
UW: There are a lot of budding filmmakers. The situation may be grim today, but if you see how a place like VAST (Voluntary Artists Studio Thimphu) has slowly transformed its form from mere line drawings, I am sure something can be done. Somebody may have to take the lead.
BT: What role do you think documentary plays in a modern Bhutanese context?
The documentary films made by BBS are appreciated by its viewers. As an independent filmmaker you will not get to show your documentaries on it.
A cinema verite approach can be very powerful. In a democratic era where the constitution protects your right to expression you can certainly produce documentaries relating to many issues.
The scope will grow when private TV comes and when independent filmmakers have a platform to showcase their works. It will have its impact after all, remember, the sound and visual media is the most profound medium. You will be a power to contend with. So go for
BT: What are you working on these days?
UW: I am doing one on food. When I show it, I will require some chefs to accompany me and have the same on the table after the screening.