12 MIN READ
When Kesang Tseten, one of Nepal's most respected filmmakers, began shooting for his 2009 documentary In Search of the Riyal, he was intent on making just the one film, conceived as a chronicle of the lives of Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf countries.
But as he sat at his editing table months later, combing through all 160 hours of the footage, he realized it would be impossible to do justice to the stories of the people if documented through a single film. And thus, emerged a trilogy: In Search of the Riyal (2009), Saving Dolma (2010), and The Desert Eats Us (2011).
In Search of the Riyal, the first in the series, begins with a powerful scene: a number of bewildered-looking Nepali men are ordered to lift up heavy sacks of cement each weighing 50 kilos. They must run outside with it, and come back in, proving they can carry the weight for more than a few seconds. Based on their performance they are approved for coveted job positions in the Gulf countries.
While lifting the bags of cement, some of the men smile in embarrassment, others grimace in distress, struggling with the unwieldy, backbreaking mass that gives off clouds of sickly powder. These are the people who represent the every-man in Nepal, and their hopes and dreams, largely pinned upon any opportunity to go abroad.
Journalist Pete Pattisson's investigation, published in the Guardian in 2013, helped shine a global spotlight on Qatar's treatment of its migrant workers, many of whom are Nepalis (still) working on projects connected to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
But anyone living in Nepal, or familiar with its issues, knows that the plight of Nepalis living and working in the Gulf countries has been dire for a long time and continues to be so. More than a decade after Tseten’s first film was released little has changed; the films are as relevant today as they were when they came out.
While each of these films is self-contained, watched together in the correct order, they leave a cumulative impact that is thought-provoking and at times necessarily heavy. Perhaps the greatest strength of the films is the breadth of their scope and the disciplined, impartial documentation of a human condition that has started to impact the fabric of Nepali society at all levels.
In Search of the Riyal is structured as three parts: “Going”, “Being There” and “Returning”. Over the course of the “Going” segment, Tseten and his crew follow several young men from various, remote parts of Nepal as they embark on journeys that they imagine will take them to lands that will make them rich. It is exactly this kind of naïve outlook that endears the viewer to the array of characters we come to know over the course of the film.
Most poignant are the simple hopes that parents (mothers particularly) express over what their sons may be able to accomplish abroad. These sentiments are inextricably laced with a deep awareness that they are sending their children into the unknown, an unfamiliar place from which they may not return alive. Indeed, enough stories have trickled back even to these remote villages of the increasing number of young men who have inexplicably died out there in the “desert”.
One young man in particular encapsulates this predicament when he says, “I do not know anything about where I am going, neither the place nor the language. Even if someone said they wanted to kill me, I wouldn’t understand.” And yet it is clear that he must go. Without his income his barely subsistent family would starve.
Due to Tseten and his team’s deft and patient camerawork we have unusual access and can witness the circumstances under which most of these callow young men go abroad, leaving behind mothers and sweethearts. Some are hardly instructed before they are packed off, others have the slightly better fortune of receiving minimal training: how to buckle a plane seat-belt, how to unfold an airplane dining tray, and so forth.
“Being There” is perhaps the most difficult to view of the three segments. It documents the countless stories of men who have been abused, left stranded, kicked out overnight from their work sites – simply for demanding their pay. These stories come to us out of Qatar (where Tseten and his team had to film clandestinely) but can clearly be extrapolated to other Gulf countries where conditions are similar.
This segment also introduces us to perhaps the most memorable of characters – if one were forced to choose among the myriad – the journalist Devendra Bhattarai who had then been newly posted to Doha as a reporter for Kantipur Publications.
In one particularly poignant scene, he confides wearily to the camera that at the beginning of every week, he wakes up desperately wanting to break some good news – but by Monday or Tuesday he already has at least three or four deaths to write about. Every time his phone rings he tells viewers he knows it is bad news. “Seven out of ten people who come here are alright,” he says, “But it is the plight of the remaining three that taints the experience for all of us”.
And so the film continues, recording one tragic story after another of people who have been swindled by their agents, and of others who have been stuck for months in limbo, waiting at the Nepali embassy. We do not follow the arc of the many characters we meet in “Being There” but we can imagine the hollowness of their returns to the families they cannot feed.
In “Returning”, we find a case in point in the story of Dalbir Singh – a former army soldier who has come back to his village after quitting his job in Dubai where he was a well-paid security guard for ten years. When his father died, he was not given leave to return and so he handed in his notice, like so many other Nepali men abroad are compelled to do so just so they can come home for mourning rituals.
Dalbir is a poet, a thinker, a man who feels his situation keenly. He points out the plight of people, himself included, who still have arable land that cannot be farmed because there are no more men in the villages. Looking at Dalbir’s desolate property and barren land we are confronted with the tragedy of a traditional subsistence agrarian society that is now defunct.
The situation was precipitated by the lack of security and economic instability which went hand in hand with a 10-year-long conflict (1996-2006) between the Maoist insurgents and the state’s forces. Those events still resonate today, encroaching upon present issues, almost a decade and a half after its resolution.
Dalbir understands that unless he too goes abroad on contract for a minimum of two years, he cannot sustain his family. He has remarried, has two infant children and a stoic but weather-beaten old mother to feed. His young, innocent wife is asked how she feels about his long absences. As the camera holds on her face she expresses the inherent tragedy of their situation, the falling apart of family, the loneliness, and the impinging poverty – something she could not have fully articulated just in words due her natural reticence.
The film crew follows Dalbir as he goes to Kathmandu and struggles to find a job abroad. There he is cheated by a middleman, a practiced con artist who promises to take him and a few others to Macao but later leaves them high and dry after having extracted payment.
It is a surprising and serendipitous twist then that when Dalbir does find a job, it is at an NGO which counsels and trains young men in masonry and scaffolding before they embark for the Middle East. It is clear that Dalbir is a kind and patient teacher, a man who has experienced it all before and is both willing and good at passing on his knowledge and wisdom to these innocent and bewildered young men. In a ruthless world, this is as close as we can come to a happy ending.
In Search of the Riyal frames and crystallises the experiences and issues, both good and bad, faced by Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf countries. It is therefore a valuable, important, and impartial record of the uglier problems that the Nepali government is still leery of addressing, let alone fixing.
Dr. Ganesh Gurung, a sociologist, former member of the National Planning Commission, and an expert on migration issues, says the problems that migrants face – whether in the Gulf regions or Malaysia and India – could be preempted in Nepal by disseminating accurate information, providing adequate training, teaching the basics of destination countries' language, and eliminating middle men.
Women in particular are at risk and without support networks because the government has made the migration of women less than thirty years of age illegal due to high incidences of abuse abroad.
So it is in fact a logical progression in the trilogy for the second film to focus on the women who suffer in the Gulf – all of whom are currently there illegally, having gone either through India or a similar intermediary country in the past. According to Dr. Gurung, many now pass through Tribhuwan International Airport itself, in Kathmandu, via illegal channels facilitated by bribing the systemically corrupt airport authorities.
Saving Dolma (2010), the second film, is quite frankly harrowing. It is a film about the unspeakable injustices exacted upon defenseless women who have no protection, neither inside nor outside of their own countries.
Structured in an unconventional way, it is nonetheless searing. Tseten’s team had no access to Dolma in the Kuwaiti jail where she was imprisoned, and sentenced to hang in 2008, accused of murdering her fellow Filipino maid while working as a domestic servant.
While we never see Dolma’s face, her story, told through her friends in Kuwait, her husband, and through her letters to her toddler son, is acutely compelling. Even as we get to know her, and whether we believe fully in her innocence or not, we begin to realize Dolma stands in for every other young, domestic female worker who has been beaten and sexually abused by her employers.
There is one particular scene in Saving Dolma which confounds description, but I will try to convey its power here in words. Tseten couldn’t find a sponsor willing to invite him to Kuwait, knowing his intent to film – fortuitously he was helped by two intrepid young men, Alston D’Silva (a Kuwaiti national), and Grady Walker (an American), who were able to travel to Kuwait and were willing, at great personal risk, to film whatever they could access covertly.
The scene I refer to takes place at an employment referral service that provides domestic labour in Kuwait. An Arab woman, clad from head to toe in black robes and wearing the traditional hijab, is shouting at a Nepali lady behind the counter. The gist of the vitriolic screaming (which is in Arabic and was filmed from a low angle by Walker who turned on the camera and held it in his lap to record) seems to be that the woman is furious at her Nepali maid who has drunk bleach for the second time in an attempt to kill herself. The woman screams that the maid is useless; when the Nepali lady behind the counter attempts to speak she is called a “dog”. The entire encounter between the two women, with the Nepali maid retching on the side, is hard to stomach.
As Devendra Bhattarai, the journalist from In Search of the Riyal, said, the plight of a few taints the entirety’s experience. Dolma is saved, as suggested by the title. But while some women do prosper and succeed in the Gulf – either self-employed as hair-dressers or such – most who enter into domestic labour are brutally treated and dehumanised due to their religion. In the worst cases they are imprisoned for days on end, without pay, their passports locked away by their employers. Story after story of horrors such as these pervade Nepali newspapers even today.
Tseten’s final installment in the trilogy, rather aptly titled The Desert Eats Us (2011), brings us back to the quotidian routines of migrants in the Gulf. Once again, we meet Devendra Bhattarai, now depressed and rendered helpless by the surfeit of death and misfortune that seems to befall his fellow countrymen and women whose plight he is compelled to record and report.
One particularly frightening story he tells is of a Nepali man who has been murdered and systematically cannibalised. When his friend is called in to identify the remains, he finds the remnants of the man’s dismembered body in a freezer. It is a gruesome story that stands as a terrifying metaphor for the Nepali experience in the Middle East, symbolising the plight of the many who embarked full of hopes and dreams, and have either been lost or engulfed, body and soul, in the search for what ought to be a human right – that of gainful employment without abuse.
These films beg the question: why is the government still so reluctant to stand up for, and ameliorate, the circumstances of the Nepali migrant worker.
Since 2007 the government has issued a staggering 3.5 million labour permits (as of 2017). These hard-working citizens brought in remittances equal to 25 percent of the GDP, keeping the country afloat during the conflict. Over 1,500 workers continue to leave Nepal every day, and their contribution, sending home money, is still a significant and integral part of the GDP today.
The question of who will stand up for these men and women – the ones who leave home and country just so they can make ends meet – is one that will haunt everyone who watches this haunting trilogy.
Kesang Tseten, in documenting these grueling stories, has done his part by successfully bringing the experience of the Nepali migrant worker to our attention, and has thus recorded history in unforgettable images. Now it is up to the Nepali government to fulfill its obligations to its citizens abroad.
Later this year, Kesang Tseten will revisit the plight of Nepali workers abroad with the release of his new film The Riyalists.
Sophia L. Pandé Sophia L. Pandé is an art historian and film-maker by training. In the past she has been a long running columnist for the Nepali Times and The Kathmandu Post.
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