Nani Sahra Walker went to Nepal for seven months, and came back with a one-hour documentary. OK, a rough cut. No big deal? Try this, you hard-to-impress types: In 2007, Nepal’s Supreme Court struck down laws discriminating against homosexuals, then a year later approved same-sex marriages–and directed the government to provide full rights to gays and lesbians. Enlightenment guaranteed, indeed. The central thread of Other Nature, as it happens, is a pilgrimage by the main characters–a female-to-male transgender and a male-to-female trans–to the sacred place of Muktinath in the Mustang region. “There’s no real arc,” Walker says, disavowing the shape of Western documentaries. “There’s journey, and we keep coming back to the journey.”
“Journey” seems like an appropriate word for the twenty-something Walker. She was born in Nepal and moved to the Bay Area with her family as an adolescent, attending high school here and then in Japan. After majoring in religion and philosophy at Boston University, she went to New York and gravitated to film production. When news from Nepal’s Supreme Court rippled around the world, she corresponded with Parliament member Sunil Babu Pant, founder of the LGBT organization Blue Diamond Society and that country’s first openly gay politician, and began to conceive of a film.
“I was on my way to Nepal and I stopped in San Francisco,” where her family still lives, Walker relates. “I was a little curious about the production industry here.” So she ended up staying for a year, working on various projects including producing and editing Coming in from the Cold, a narrative short with Tin Lee, which played L.A.’s Outfest last year. When the Supreme Court handed down its decision on gay marriage in late 2008, Walker realized her San Francisco “layover” had, in fact, been a boon.
She jetted to Nepal in the middle of May, armed with a knowledge of the language but uncertain about key aspects of her film. In three days, though, she was shooting, buoying her confidence. “I was afraid once I got there I was going to be such a foreigner, such an outsider, it was going to be hard to get that momentum going,” she confides. She moved past that pretty quickly, spending two weeks in the red-light district interviewing queer sex workers about the discrimination they regularly encountered.
“One thing that wasn’t so clear to me [before arriving] is Nepal is issuing ‘third gender’ identification, which is basically transgender,” says Walker, noting that this classification is listed on passports and official documents. “Nowhere else in the world is this third gender. There needs to be a recognition of people who are other, but doing it on the legal level without the awareness of the person,” Walker maintains, is not a satisfactory solution.
A steady stream of documentaries shot in Nepal and the Himalayas and informed by Eastern religion, philosophy and tradition flows through Bay Area theaters every year. Other Nature shares one characteristic of the genre, Walker allows. “Nepal being this very impoverished place, from the West we look it as a place that needs a lot of aid. A lot of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy is centered in that place, and there’s this idea of exporting thought and concept from the East. I want [the film] to be this picture of exchange, amid this chaos.”
Walker dismisses the notion that queer American viewers, so far down the road of gay liberation and equality, will find the situation in Nepal of less than pressing relevance. In particular, she thinks that younger lesbians and gays born after most of the movement’s toughest battles will rally to the struggle in Nepal.
“We’re not past it [here],” Walker points out. “To this day there are still human rights violations. The audience here, not so many have lived through the ‘60s. They’ve heard about it. Here’s this current civil protest and human rights movement. That makes it relevant–it’s happening today.”
While filmmakers typically make a couple of short-to-medium trips to an overseas location, Walker stayed continuously in Nepal for seven months through editing and postproduction. “I wanted to be there so if there’s something missing, it’s right there instead of across the world.”
Walker had been back in San Francisco for literally a week when we met for coffee in late December, She brought all the elements back with her, and is engrossed in making the fine cut and sending it out to festivals, as well as marketing and distribution. She has three months left on her FilmHouse residency, and is already percolating on a new idea.
“On this project, it was more shaping it as I went,” she notes. A narrative feature, on the other hand, would be scripted and structured before cameras rolled. Walker’s inspiration is a real-life gay couple that was kicked out of the Nepalese army–one of the guys was even tortured for two months. She met them while shooting Other Nature, and they appear in the film. In the proposed feature, their story would emerge from the shadows into the brightly illuminated center of the screen.
Notes from the Underground
Peter Esmonde’s Trimpin: The Sound of Invention has its Bay Area theatrical premiere Jan. 29-31 at the Red Vic. Relocating Ozu: The Question of an Asian Cinematic Vernacular, a highbrow conference and symposium, is set for Sat, Feb 20 at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. See the Center’s own listing for details 20th Century Fox fervently hopes Chris Columbus’ next film, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, launches a lucrative adventure/fantasy franchise when it opens Feb. 12.
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