FILMMAKER SPOTLIGHT: Zara Balfour, Co-Director of CHILDREN OF THE SNOW LAND
March 29, 2019
CHILDREN OF THE SNOW LAND
Saturday, March 30 at 11:45a.m.
Imagine being separated from your parents at age 4 and not seeing them for 12 years. This is the reality for some children born in the remote High Himalayas of Nepal, where families living an ancient way of life send their kids to school in Kathmandu — the only hope for providing them with better opportunities. CHILDREN OF THE SNOW LAND follows a group of teenagers as they make the arduous trek home, after 12 years in a modern world, to the highest inhabited villages on the planet to reconnect with their traditional parents.
Zara Balfour, who directed the film with Marcus Stephenson, spoke with Salem Film Fest writer Sarah Wolfe ahead of the Massachusetts Premiere at CinemaSalem on Saturday, March 30 at 11:45a.m.
Sarah Wolfe: Your film just screened in London. Did the film’s teens, Nima, Tsering, and Jeewan, attend the premiere with you and Marcus?
Zara Balfour: They were there with us! They left Nepal for the first time to come to the London premiere. It was their next big journey after the one they took in the film. They just flew back home today and I miss them already.
SW: What do they think of CHILDREN OF THE SNOW LAND?
ZB: They love that their stories are being told. It’s not just their own, but the story of the Himalayan people. They really appreciate that the world is listening.
SW: All the stories in this film are simply amazing. What led you and Marcus to document them? You each have such extensive backgrounds in film, television, and digital media, and this is the first feature-length documentary for you both as directors/producers.
ZB: Marcus and I met a few years ago when a production company hired and sent us to Nepal to film charities. It was the first time either of us had been there. We both immediately fell in love with this amazing country and its people. I stayed in touch with a charity I’d been filming, Future Village Foundation, and a few years later they started funding the Snow Land School. That’s when Marcus and I heard they were also supporting trips for the Snow Land students to visit their families at age 16 before graduating. We were surprised and asked why the children needed help going home. We then learned that students from the High Himalayan villages would otherwise not see their families for 12 years, or possibly longer, because the parents didn’t have enough money to send for them. Some children could never see their families again. We were shocked. It was such an extraordinary story and it made me and Marcus want to fly out and meet the children of the Snow Land School. We wanted to see if we could bring their story to the world and raise awareness.
SW: What was it that drew you to Nima, Tsering, and Jeewan to help tell this story?
ZB: When we first flew out to the school, we basically did a casting process across the top two class years. It was to find students who would be able, and willing, to express themselves; who would trust us enough to let us into their lives to tell their personal stories. Nima, Tsering, and Jeewan were just amazing. They each had very distinct personalities and stood out as being charismatic and so open to the film. They really wanted to help Himalayan kids like themselves.
SW: How far ahead were the families in the remote, Himalayan villages contacted about their children visiting home? And with a documentary film crew?
ZB: Because there’s no communication in the villages, the families actually weren’t notified at all. But there had been children in the previous year that had gone home to reconnect with their parents. So the families knew there was a charity that was now funding students to visit the villages. And they knew roughly the time of year the children arrived. They were hoping to see them, but nothing was confirmed. And they definitely didn’t know the children would show up with a film crew.
SW: Wow, so everyone basically crossed their fingers and hoped it would all work out.
SW: How did you film each student’s individual journey? How big was your crew?
ZB: Fellow cameraman Mark Hackansson and I trekked up to the villages with the students in a staggered fashion, following one and then another, and then went between the villages. Marcus covered the filming back in Kathmandu. The kids did their own filming, too, of personal journals — especially while with their families.
SW: Was giving the students cameras something you’d planned from the beginning?
ZB: It was. We didn’t want to overshadow their journey, especially the moments of reunion. Part of the reason we taught them filmmaking was so they could be with their families without too much intrusion from us. It’s also a part of the world that hasn’t really seen foreigners. We wanted to get a bit under the skin of the culture and its people, and the children were better placed to film that than we were.
SW: There’s an incredible amount of physical risk as we follow the students through the High Himalayas. Have you ever filmed in such dangerous conditions before? How did you plan and adapt?
ZB: I’ve filmed in a lot of countries, but nothing like this. Not this physically challenging or in these conditions. It was especially difficult because there was no electricity, so we had to rethink our equipment. We had to bring solar chargers with us and devices that were compatible with them. We didn’t carry laptops or hard drives for backing up material because we just didn’t have the capacity to charge them. We opted for lots and lots of memory cards and simply hoped for the best. We also didn’t have any satellite phones or ways to summon help for accidents. The students and crew basically travelled like the locals do. There were moments when we realized, with all these factors, just how difficult the journey was going to be.
SW: Once the students do make it home in the film, they touch upon questions about participating in the modern world versus preserving ancient traditions and culture. Can you talk a little more about this?
ZB: Western countries don’t have all the answers. So I was concerned when I started this film about supporting something that takes people away from a certain way of life. But having been to Nepal and met the villagers, I saw that all of them without exception wanted to leave, to have a different way of life. They are literally working from morning to evening – farming, harvesting, and cooking – just to survive. That’s their whole life. And there’s no communication, no sanitation, and many health problems with no doctors to treat them.
SW: That’s incredible.
ZB: It is. These villagers are making a tremendous sacrifice in sending their children away to school, but it’s one that will slowly develop these areas. The children already care about their villages and by reconnecting them with their families they are able to see and understand that lifestyle and are invested in it. At the same time, they’re educated, they understand city life, and they have tremendous potential for future careers. There’s a huge divide between those two worlds in Nepal. Having educated children from remote mountain villages, however, creates the ability to make a difference back home.
SW: Do you see a future where schools might exist across these mountain villages?
ZB: It would be ideal so children could stay with their parents. But right now the barriers are too great. Only by improving communication, sanitation, and transportation will educated teachers want to live in these remote villages. If that happens, then maybe children wouldn’t have to be separated from their families. Or perhaps they’d return home as adults to stay. But for now, the best hope for developing that society unfortunately involves the families sending their children away for an education.
SW: I understand that the film is helping to fund the children’s trips home?
We’ve set up a ‘Going Home Campaign’ to support the Future Village Foundation through our film website. We’re hoping CHILDREN OF THE SNOW LAND raises awareness and helps students reunite with their families. The Future Village Foundation didn’t have enough this year to cover the whole graduating class, so they had to choose which students saw their parents. We ideally hope the film can additionally help to support the Snow Land School’s operations as well as its students once they graduate – to find sponsorship for their continued studies and accommodation in the city. More immediately, though, it would be great if we could help get satellites and Skype up into some of those villages so all the parents and children could at least video chat with each other to stay connected.
SW: That would be amazing. In addition to raising awareness to support the ‘Going Home Campaign,’ what do you ultimately hope people carry away from watching this film?
ZB: It’s unimaginable that these children are being separated for 12 years from their families, but seeing the way that Nima, Tsering, and Jeewan deal with that is incredibly uplifting. They teach us we have a lot to be thankful for in our own lives in such an honest and inspiring way. These children are incredibly wise and stoic as they go through a very difficult situation in the best possible way. They show us that we can face our hardships with grace and acceptance and that we can truly feel grateful for what we have.
Tickets are on sale now for CHILDREN OF THE SNOW LAND and can be purchased online at https://salemfilmfest.com/2019/movies/children-of-the-snow-land/
Zara Balfour will be present for a Q&A after the film screening.