Unreasonable Commitment: An encore presentation

I actually wrote this essay years ago. I believe in December of 2011. Even though some of you may have read it before, I am posting it again for two reasons:

1. A lot of you I just met in the last few years and are new-ish to Drawing the Tiger. I want to catch everyone up with how this all began.

2. Because everything I wrote here is all still true, but so much less raw. I don’t really question WHY we are making this film any longer or WHAT is at risk. Not like I used to. This is what we are doing. Full stop. There is no going back. It feels good. I no longer worry about if I am putting this project—the story of Shanta and her family—ahead of our son. He gets it. He actually asked us at the dinner table the other night what our next film is going to be about.

So here it is: an encore essay presentation of Unreasonable Commitment (Originally published in the zine, Courageous Creativity, from Shirin Subhani and Shahana Dattagupta the founders of Flying Chickadee, a really sweet publishing outfit out of Seattle.)

 

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Shanta’s mom

 

I am living on too little sleep most of the time.

It is the story of Shanta that keeps me up at night and my two year old son that wakes me early in the morning.

It has been this way since 2008. This was the year I met Shanta and the year I became pregnant. The two most transformative events of my life happened just months apart. And they both have put me on a thrilling, unkempt, angst­filled track that I can’t get off. My only option is to make another pot of coffee and keep doing what I am doing.

The story of Shanta and the raising of my boy, Hale, keep me on a constant rotating roller coaster—if one has me slowly ascending with sweet anticipation, the other has me begging to get off the ride. They both bring me such immense, unexplainable joy. They both bring me these dark waves of deep frustration—regret even. (Am I allowed to think such a thing?)

When the documentary makes progress—maybe a grant is awarded, Hale decides to spend a day refusing to get dressed and I am in my pajamas till two. After a day of snuggles and milestones, I feel the project is too huge—impossible. What am I doing? Will it ever get done? This is stupid—unreasonable even. I gave up a well paying, rewarding job as a teacher to be in the unpredictable, no paycheck world of documentary. Everything we do is piecemeal.

Why am I spending time I could be with my son to make a film about a girl who is thousands of miles away, who speaks a language I don’t understand— and who is no longer alive.

Why am I spending time prepping snack for preschool when I could be working on the answer to the question the whole world needs to know— why did Shanta take her own life?

In 2008, my husband, Scott, and I traveled to Nepal to film a promotional piece for an NGO that provides scholarships for girls to go to school. Shanta was a stellar example of why educating girls is the best thing we can do for the world. She moved from her tiny, remote village to live with her brother in Katmandu and to attend one of the best schools in the country. When we met her, she had been in the city for a year. She had learned to read and write. She had some English. Shanta was at the top of her class.

She told us she was going to become a doctor. She told us she was going to return to her village to teach the women about contraception. Shanta was angry that her mom had so many babies—that she was just one of many.

Shanta was angry about a lot of things. She was routinely pushed out of line at the local fountain because of her untouchable caste. Her sister­in­law, a mother of two who has never spent a day in school, harassed her for being yet another mouth to feed. Her apartment was too small, dark

and crowded for studying. She missed the village, but was not the same person from when she left.

During the weeks in which we filmed her, I knew how frustrated she was. In many ways, she was like many teenagers I knew back when I was a middle school teacher. Shanta was proud, cocky even, emotional, silly and full big dreams. The difference being her extreme vulnerability.

And the thing is… I knew this. I knew how vulnerable she was.

This is the moment that still causes me pain in my stomach every time I think of it. I don’t even know if I want to write it down.

The last time I spoke with her was the night before we left Nepal that first time. It was over the phone in our hotel lobby. We only had so much common language we could use, so we repeated the same phrases over and over.

‘I will miss you, ‘so happy to know you,’
Then we just sat on the line for while in silence. She said things in Nepali I could not understand.

and then I said ‘I will come back.’ ‘Come back,’ Shanta repeated.

Because I was going to come back.

Scott and I spent the plane trip home writing the script for our documentary that would prove girls education was the best thing you could do in the world. It would be the film that would be the tipping point for women’s empowerment in the developing world. Shanta was to be our main character—our hero.

In wasn’t until the summer of 2010 that we had raised enough funds for our return trip. It was at this same time we got the news of her death. Hale was napping and he woke up when he heard my sobs. She had hanged herself.

I was sure it was my fault. I felt I had failed. I was so, so sad she was gone. For over a month I wasn’t quite sure I would laugh again. It might sound dramatic, but it is true. Nothing felt light. I saw the world through a scrim of Nepal. It made me feel ill every time I scraped Hale’s wasted food in the compost or imagined how many gallons of water he was using in his bath.

And then I felt self­conscious for being so devestated. I only knew her a few weeks. How self­centered am I to think it was my fault. Doesn’t that make it all about me?

I knew how vulnerable Shanta was and the way I decided to help was to make an independent documentary about her. What a slow, self­serving way to help someone.

If I had just gotten there sooner…

Seven weeks after Shanta died I flew back to Nepal leaving Hale, whom I was still breastfeeding, for two weeks. I had to know what happened. I carried my heavy backpack of film equipment all over Katmandu and never got it out even once.

We will never know why exactly she took her own life. The reasons are big and many and at the heart of it—so simple. She was super smart, stubborn and severely stifled. She knew what she was capable of in the world and knew she could not become it.

I don’t blame myself as much anymore, not in a direct way anyhow. The whole thing is so complicated. But I did give her hope and then came home and had a baby and bought a new video camera and carried on with my life while she was suffering. It is not my fault, but damn, why didn’t I do anything concrete?

Because, you see, I could have. Next to her, I have so much wealth. So much power. As an American I could have, should have saved her.

But how? In what way? Make her American?
Currently, suicide is the leading cause of death among women aged 14­49 in Nepal.

Despite this statistic it was far from an obvious choice to continue to tell her story. We wrestled with it for a long time, but I knew we didn’t really have a choice.

For as unreasonable as it is to think that I, this white western woman, should tell Shanta’s story for the good of the world. It is unreasonable to think I shouldn’t or can’t.

I must have met her for a reason, right?

I am taking this on—the telling of Shanta’s story— to the best of my ability, not has a westerner, not even as a filmmaker, but as a girl, a woman and a most of all a mom.

This is the realm in which I know I belong in Nepal under the low ceilings of Shanta’s mom’s simple house made of mud with my fancy camera. Our worlds are so different I can hardly believe they exist at the same time. Our lives are not comparable. But we do have this in common—the special power of motherhood—and I think this is enough.

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4 Comments

  1. pie friendly
    March 22, 2015

    I am in tears again, Amy – maybe another time I can write more – P

    Reply
  2. Lisa Hurwitz
    March 23, 2015

    Thank you for sharing your process and some backstory. Makes me appreciate you and your film that much more. Incredible.

    Reply
  3. Suzanne Grenager
    March 31, 2015

    Just read this for the first time, Amy. Like the first person who commented, I too am moved to tears. And I *second* Lisa’s comment as well. This backstory adds depth, richness and power to my appreciation of the great-hearted woman you are! I am so glad we have reconnected and that I am able to be the tiniest part of your inspiring odyssey!

    Reply
  4. Makiko Ishihara
    May 3, 2015

    Read your blog today for the first time, Amy. Thank you very much for completing and showing the film. I saw it at Toronto’s Hot Docs because I wanted to see how people lived in the mountains before the April earthquake. Not only the natural disaster is something we have no control of, but also it is this stark reality, i.e. a person cannot chose which country, what environment, what parents he/she wants to be born under. Shanta was the beginning of something great for her parents, community, and even for Nepal, but I really felt the huge burden on her tiny shoulders. The image of Shanta studying on the floor while there was some light from the window was very powerful. Her last scene of washing her uniform seems almost like her preparation to leaving this world… . Her smile would never be forgotten. Thank you for sharing your film and your blog.

    Reply

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