Light of educating girls shines brightly in the High Himalayas: Watching Children of the Snowland
Up on the roof of the world, there’s a school. You could literally call it the light of education – which they do. The Snowland Ranag Light of Education school in Kathmandu makes it possible for poor children in the High Himalayas to get some of the best schooling in Nepal – but are only reunited with their families years later, when they graduate.
It’s the teenagers’ pilgrimage home through the Himalayas that intrigued filmmakers Zara Balfour and Marcus Stephenson enough to make ‘Children of the Snowland’, a beautiful and touching film where three young adults document themselves going home to their villages after not seeing their parents for more than a decade. It’s an interesting tension – how will these kids, who are by now highly educated, fluent in English and familiar with social media, deal with three months in places without sanitation and phones, never mind internet? And how will they build bridges with their families, who sacrificed a normal relationship with them for the sake of education?
“We found that the parents are cut off from the memory of their children, they found giving them up too painful to remember, while the kids really held on to the memory.”
“We knew what we thought the story would be up to a point,” explains Zara Balfour, “but we really couldn’t have predicted what would happen. The parents were actually quite cold at the moment of reunions. We were expecting big things at that moment – huge hugs and tears – but they were stiff and shy, and the film needed to have a lot more of the adjustment period where they get to know each other again. We found that the parents are cut off from the memory of their children, they found giving them up too painful to remember, while the kids really held on to the memory.”
Children of the Snowland is Zara Balfour’s first feature documentary after nearly twenty years of experience in the field. She and Marcus Stephenson came across the story making another film in Nepal, and after a couple of years research, found three 16 year old protagonists – two boys, Nima Gurung and Sangpo Lama, and a girl, Tsering Deki Lama (we at Electra hope for big things to happen to her in the future.) They handed all three cameras to document their journey home, which took weeks of trekking through the Himalayas. The only way home, it turns out, is on foot.
“Those mountains look so beautiful but you don’t realise that people are working morning to night, seven days a week, in order to feed themselves. Everything is about harvesting food. We were on a small budget, we had no satellite phones or what you’d really expect for a long trip like that to remote places. We had to rely on our own wits.”
Zara and Marcus went too, and had their own learning experience. “You know we really didn’t know how rough it was going to be in the villages,” Zara admits. “In Sangpo’s grandma’s village that was the toughest moment physically, there’s no toilets and it’s dirty, there are children walking around barefoot. Those mountains look so beautiful but you don’t realise that people are working morning to night, seven days a week, in order to feed themselves. Everything is about harvesting food. Even the journeys had pretty awful conditions. We were on a small budget, we had no satellite phones or what you’d really expect for a long trip like that to remote places. Everything about the journey is funded on a shoestring by charities that fund the school, and so we had to rely very much on our own wits. It’s a remote region with no maintenance and little infrastructure.”
To add to the story, the recent earthquake that devastated Kathmandu and which killed and injured tens of thousands of people, happened during the teenagers’ trip home.
“It was only tremors in the villages in the mountains,” Zara explains, “but Nima in particular felt it as he was still in the middle of his trek home. We had just left at that point, and the kids were on their own, filming. The story itself is extraordinary in itself, if it was written as a fiction the earthquake would be treated as too much and we’d have been told to take it out. The kids had enough on their plates with leaving school, making the journey home to see parents they hadn’t met for years and then they find out that back in Kathmandu the school they’ve come to see as home is potentially damaged or devastated ( plot spoiler: the school is still open)
The brightest star of filming is Tsering, who has an emotional reconnection with her mother over the course of the trip, who has shut down emotionally after having to give up her daughter. At the time of the film, Tsering wanted to be a human rights lawyer, but because of the need for sponsorship and the expense of a law degree, is in the meantime studying at fashion college.
“She could make a huge difference in Nepal with her education and she’s so articulate and intelligent,” says Zara. “In future she wants to get into political issues and she’s very passionate – I can really see her fighting for the rights of the people in her community. Someone who relates to her region is really important – sanitation, transport and communication is needed to change that region, and then you could build schools there, as at the moment it’s difficult to find teachers to live there.’
In the meantime, the light of education is shining at Snowland school in Kathmandu.
Children of the Snowland is out in cinemas and on demand from Thursday 14 March 2019.
For more information and how to see it: