Director: Asmita Shrish, Nepal
An intimate interconnected eco documentary, Higher centers Tshomo, a mother yak risking the sheer mountain of the high Himalayas, to satisfy her post birth craving for the special sedge, Buki. Due to climate change, she is forced to climb higher and higher each year.
The film highlights the practice of transhumance for environmental, economical and cultural reasons. The relationship between the yak, the shepherds and the mountain is an act of balancing energetic returns. The film is an insightful reflection on an interconnected ecosystem adversely affected by climate change.
Every summer, young female yak give birth to their young ones. As their carer, Brish nourishes them yak and protect young calves along with Tashi, under the threat of snow leopard each night thus making him come back to the Shelter, sometimes leaving mother Yak in the higher pastures. Tshomo is a young female yak that just gave birth to the young one, a brave one who Brish knows since she was a small calve. He has also given her a name according to the colour of her fur.
Brish is a hard workingman in his early 50s. His face is dark from the exposure to sun and wind; the familiar stains of heavy tea drinking mark his teeth. He has a hoarse voice because of smoking. He is part of the mountain Indigenous Gurung tribe and a Buddhist. Brish Gurung has been herding yak for many years, a profession that is vanishing in the higher plains/high Himalayas. Yak herding has been part of life in the Himalayas for centuries. During winter he brings yak down to lower altitudes around 3500 m above sea level in his village Nar where the yak will stay throughout the winter while humans hibernate. He has about 90-100 yaks in total and knows each one of them with their traits. Brish has a friend Tashi who accompanies him in the summer pasture. Tashi is older than Brish, almost 60 years old. He is the one who cooks for them, prepares salt for the yak. His face is wrinkly and so are his hands.
Higher invites the audience to delve into the microcosm of Tshomo and her friends, Brish and Tashi. The film follows the movement of Brish and his yak migrating from day to night, from lowland to highland as they begin their transhumance journey for the summer, climbing higher and higher, hunting for the Himalayans Carex known locally as Buki. The female yaks crave this flowering plant post-birth (which happens in the summer). Due to extreme climate change, this plant is now scarce at lower altitudes and has been driven out by new vegetation. The trouble is there is only so much higher they can go. Yak suffers easily from heat exhaustion, and rising temperatures at lower altitudes necessitating higher summer grazing. The higher they go, the further from home, the harder the journey becomes because of high altitude even for the yak and the shepherds; risking yak getting badly injured, getting lost or death. Death of a yak is a huge loss for shepherds; emotionally, financially and culturally.
While Covid-19 has kept me inside with limited outside interaction, it has reminded me of how much we share this world and how interconnected everything is. Animals for examples are known to be natural forecasters. I wonder if we had learned their language, would we have been in this situation? But we don’t speak their language; we are often fixated by our own human culture. In the beginning of Covid-19, we see so many panic buying. Have we wondered what happens if one day, the food we are fighting for is permanently off the shelves? What do we do then?
Appropriate to the time, the intention of Higher is to tell the story of survival. Particularly, the resilience of mother yaks in a moment of hardship and in extreme conditions.
Hearing Victor Kossakovsky speak in Berlin, he said the idea is to not be a storyteller but to visualize the story. Similar to him, I am always curious how I can sculpt this framing of space and time in a reflective mood. I don’t have the answers but my films are on-going experimentation of what this could be. I work from the emotional space. After setting my ground and building trust with my subject(s), I let their emotive expressions orchestrate the architecture and interior of the film.
My films are in some ways a reflection of my identity. Every one of them is personal and every one of them is about the Nepali community. Higher is particularly more intimate as I am from the Magar tribe, an indigenous group of mountaineers spread throughout Mid to High Himalayas, doing Yak herding. Though, this documentary is not a reflection of my ethnicity but a privilege for me to appreciate the pilgrimage many of my ancestors have taken.
My grandfather was a shepherd and so was my father, but only briefly. He had moved to lower altitude and the role of a shepherd became less essential, so my father began to farm. Some of his attributes are echoed in the anecdotes of the film. This subtle tone of my ancestors is a contemplative setting I have set for the film.
The more I am with nature the more instinctive I become as a creative maker. I become claustrophobic in living in urban and bolted spaces affecting my anxiety. As a highly sensitive person, energetically, I do find concrete living troubling at times. The essence of sustainable living and our connection to nature needs to be reformulated. We only seem to show our concern when mother earth is exasperating. Better late than never does not mediate this concerning issue. I genuinely believe in order to reconcile this pressing issue; we need to collectively, intimately and transparently look at history based on the indigeneity of ecological interconnectivity. There is so much more we can do than eco urbanism.
Born and raised in Nepal, Asmita Shrish is based between Nepal and UK. Her practice oscillates across documentary, artist film and fiction, reflecting on the representation of identity within physical and metaphysical spaces. Often collaborating with her subjects, Asmita is particularly interested in examining delicate and private spaces within an intricate framework.
Previously mentored by auteurs Naomi Kawase, Bela Tarr and Shirin Neshat. Asmita is alumni of Berlinale Talents, and Asian Film Academy, a crewmember of BAFTA/BFI NETWORK and a fellow of IDFA Academy. She is recently a recipient of the Sinchi Foundation Fund.
Currently we are in the advanced development stage; creating strategies for production post COVID-19 while continuing seeking development funding. Some direct plans for development include receiving funds for a trip back to Nepal with a DOP, developing my script and treatment at various documentary labs including Dhaka DocLab and looking into co-production opportunities. While I continue my research, documentary maker, Marta Andreu is consulting me on my script via the Locarno film festival Locarno Open Doors Script Consultancy.
We hope to receive development funding for a follow up shoot in late autumn/Winter 2020. In the hopes that COVID-19 will settle towards the end of the year, 2020, we would like to start pre-production from Spring 2021 for production to take place in Summer 2021 and post to be done in late Summer/early Winter 2021. Film to be completed latest by late winter, early 2022.
We are aiming for festival premieres with an extension to showcase the film in a noncinema setting.
Estimated total budget: £137,990
Started in early 2018, I did an initial location recce late last year after workshopping the proposed story at the 2019 Docskool lab.
Currently, we are seeking financial aid for my return to the mountains to study the yakss. While we wait for assistance, I am in conversation with Tashi Dorji, a yak expert working at The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), who is helping me with reports on the yaks, the habitual space of Upper Manang and the mountain communities while Rudra Prasad Poudel from Ministry of Animal Husbandry and Dairying is kindly assisting me with data collecting.
While we fundraise and continue to workshop the script and treatment, we are interviewing suitable cinematographers. As this film needs extra skills and stamina, it is crucial we find a capable crew that is not only an expert in camerawork but also mentally and physically strong to a potentially harsh environment. I would like to have them travel with me upon my return to Nepal.
Otherwise, I am redrafting my script with the help of filmmaker, Marta Andreu (via Locarno Open Labs) apart from doing further readings and watching recommended films.