How did this story, and woman, come to you?
While I was in college, I heard a statistic that had my jaw on the floor. They were talking about this rebel army in Nepal, forty percent of which were women. I'm Indian. My parents are from India. And I thought it was a staggering number of women to have fighting in an army. And so my immediate question was, what is the situation in that country where people feel the need to leave their homes and farms, and go out and literally fight for their rights? I was also interested in the idea of women as agents of change, as opposed to victims of circumstance; women doing something for themselves. And so that was what got me to Nepal.
After getting there it was a matter of making contact with the rebel army, which was definitely challenging, because they were still underground when we first arrived. It took several months. I befriended a journalist who had good contacts with the rebels, but it was all very mysterious. You'd get a call at ten o'clock at night saying, be at this bus stop at five in the morning. And so you get up and you go there, and then you take a bus or jeep, and then you hike the rest of the way. And finally you get to meet the rebels. It's amazing that you can even find people like that. And then it was almost like pitching the project, explaining to them what we wanted to do and why, and trying to gain access to a woman rebel, which we ultimately did.
What were the circumstances in Nepal like when (film subject) 'Silu' became a soldier in the People's Liberation Army?
Nepal is a very small country. It's between China and India and is home of Mount Everest. For centuries Nepal was a Hindu kingdom with a monarchy with a very strong and entrenched hierarchy and caste system. Within this strict system there were rules about men and women, and what people were expected to do. There was a tradition of child marriages, and polygamy was part of the tradition. That started to change in the 1960s, and then, eventually led to a peaceful rebellion around 1990, which was the first kind of movement for democracy in the country.
But from 1990 to around 1996, there was a lot of disillusionment. Many people felt like things were not changing fast enough, and so many of those people started a guerrilla revolution to fight for this notion of equality. They wanted men and women to be equal, so they recruited equally between them.
When I would talk to soldiers, especially the women, they would say, "I'm fighting for electricity in villages, and for clean, running water, and food for everyone, and access to land so that we can farm." It was these kinds of things that you would hear again and again. Very simple human rights seemed to be at the core of it.
Still any time you use violence to fight for what you want it is controversial, because, obviously there are killings, and all kinds of things happen in war, which are horrendous. But specifically, this idea of so many women - forty percent of their army - being made up of women who would join up and be willing to leave their families and really go after this ideal of equality in a guerrilla, revolutionary way - I found that remarkable.
We deal with one soldier and her perspective. I hope people see it as a gateway into a place they might not get a chance to see otherwise.
Why do you think it is, in such a patriarchal society like Nepal, that the men would be willing to embrace female fighters?
I think part of it was a practical necessity, and part of it was a kind of doctrinal ideology. I know that a lot of the men, in order to make money for their families would end up going to India or leaving home to be able to work as laborers. So there was an exodus of forces. And then, as the revolution began to rev up, I think that led to people sending their sons away because they didn't want their sons to join the army. So there's probably a combination of forces. But we dealt with people very much on a personal level, specifically with one individual woman.
Where is Silu now? And how is she doing?
She just had a baby - a son, who's a few months old. I keep in touch with her through the film's translator, who is one of her good childhood friends. We sent her a copy of the film and she gave it the 'thumbs up'. She was happy, which was nice. I also know that, because of the political situation there, she's still fighting for the rights of women. The country is currently in a political stalemate that will, hopefully, resolve itself soon.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
Woman Rebel is a small slice of a big and complicated revolution. I hope it can be a jumping off point for discussion, and for inspiration for audiences who watch it. We deal with one soldier and her perspective. I hope people see it as a gateway into a place they might not get a chance to see otherwise. And perhaps it'll make people interested in that part of the world, and inspire them to find out more about what's going on there. Sometimes when you can see someone else struggle and triumph, it resonates emotionally and hopefully has some positive impact for an audience.
The beauty of film though is that ultimately, each person is free to take away what they want and form their own opinion.
August 18 on HBO2