Filming in Himalayan Schools
“Namaste” I said, as I bent my head to receive my garland of flowers and white silken scarf, pressing my hands together before shaking the director’s hand. He stepped aside as the chairman approached me to smear a pinch of red dust on my forehead. “Namaste”, I repeated, with another slight bow and a handshake. Then a small child in a white uniform approached me to present me with a small arrangement of flowers, bound together with string. I smiled as he shyly placed them in my hand. Just when I thought the stream of gifts had come to an end, I was handed a plaque with a photo of the school, inscribed with “Token Of Love”. Once the greetings were finished, I followed the school board into the office, placed my bundle of gifts on the table, and settled in for the half hour of introductions that would inevitably follow.
Having visited a number of schools in Nepal as part of a video project, my partner Adam and I had become used to this introductory ritual, though it never failed to impress me just how warmly visitors were welcomed to each school. We had arrived in the Syangja district of Nepal a week ago to film for Africa and Asia Venture, a charity organisation looking to send volunteer teachers to the area. During the time that we had been there, we had discovered a wonderful side to a country that we both love, and were treated like royalty while we did so.
We started in Waling. Our bus rolled in from Kathmandu characteristically late, but our contact, T.B. was still waiting to meet us with a smile. He introduced himself as the vice-principal of Waling school, before he and a friend took us by motorbike to the hotel where they had arranged for us to spend the night.
When we woke the next day, we were collected and driven to the nearby school to begin filming. We arrived just as assembly was starting, and hurriedly set up the camera to film the 200 students that were gathered in orderly lines in the courtyard. As the school principal barked instructions through a microphone, the children dutifully obeyed, saluting, rising their arms, and spreading their feet as instructed. We were informed that, in a school run by ex-gurkhas, where many of the students were children of soldiers, discipline was key.
It was at this school that we were introduced to the ritual that is Nepali greetings. After receiving our first garlands, flowers, scarves, and “tokens of love”, we sat and listened to the staff members introduce themselves and welcome us enthusiastically to the school. We then introduced ourselves and outlined our plan, what we were hoping to film, who we would like to interview, and so on. They all nodded their understanding, then completely disregarded our plan and led us on a rapid tour of the school, ushering us from classroom to classroom. We would later realise that, whatever plan we had in mind, chances are it would be steamrolled entirely.
Our next stop was the town of Syangja, where we were invited to take part in a yoga lesson before school. Entering the town hall at the ungodly hour of five am, we joined the room of about fifty men, led from the stage by the school principal. I was given a mat and told to sit right up the front (feeling all eyes on the foreigner who stuck out). I took part in the usual stretches and yoga poses, before some not-so-usual throat clearing and shouting at the top of our lungs, which just made me giggle. Then some instruments were set up on the stage and a band began to play. We all stood up and I watched as the men began twirling around and making elegant circular movements with their wrists. I followed, having no idea whether I was doing it right or making a complete ass of myself.
When the session had ended, we carried on to the school. Again we were greeted with an elaborate ritual, again we told the school board of our filming plans, and again these plans were steamrolled in favour of being ushered from classroom to classroom. But we insisted that we were there to interview students, and were eventually introduced to Subi and Adarsh, two young teenagers who told us about their school life and their goals for the future.
After we finally got the footage we needed, we continued to Bahakot, a tiny village high in theHimalayas, where we would be staying with a local family (see the articles A Home Stay in the Himalayas and Partying, Nepali Style, for more). We rose early the next day to film their daughter, Trishna, as she woke at daybreak to do her chores on the farm, before heading to the school where she worked as a teacher. Bahakot school was a small and charming place, where we were thankfully left to our own devices to film what we had planned. The children had other plans however, and sneaked, giggling, into the classroom, eager to get on camera.
Our host family introduced us to Akriti, a tiny and shy girl who went to school in the neighbouring village of Kolma, and we arranged to film her on her walk to school. She led us on her usual school route- an hour long walk up a mountain, stopping sporadically to pull leeches from her feet. After saying goodbye to her at the private school she attended, we were invited to the nearby government school. Despite it being closed for the day, staff and students had turned out to welcome us and invite us to film their school too.
After seven days and hours of footage, we reached our final school, in Dewanchok. Eager to complete our last bout of filming, we sat as once again we were greeted with flowers, scarves, red forehead dust and a token of love, followed by the obligatory half hour of greetings, followed by a tour of the school while we insisted that we really were there to film a football match.
Eventually, after the school board seemed satisfied that they had done their duty in welcoming us, the football match began. We sat on the edge of the pitch as the players warmed up, the other students jostled for space around the edge of the pitch, and the school principal took to the podium. Cameras at the ready, we listened to the principal give yet another long introduction, wondering how much more time would be wasted before we actually got to film the match, and then we heard our names over the microphone. Gesturing towards us, the principal told the school how wonderful it was to have us come all this way to film their school, how amazing it is that they are part of our documentary, and how happy they are to have us visit. The school erupted in applause as I blushed and gave a small wave. It may be frustratingly slow at times, but the welcome that these schools give their visitors is also utterly heartwarming.