South Asian Projects
Devi-Subina Shrestha (Nepal)
Devi, a former guerilla fighter who survived war time rape, decides to fight for justice.
‘Devi Khadka, a Maoist former guerilla, is the only woman alive from Nepal’s ten year long insurgency, who has been publicly identified as a survivor of a gang-rape by the security forces. At seventeen, Devi was arrested, accused of being a Maoist, tortured, raped in custody, and was forced to have an abortion. Devi battled depression, joined the front lines of the Maoist army seeking revenge, and rose through the ranks. After peace in 2006 she remained in the party and was elected to parliament.
Hundreds of other women, raped by men from either side of the conflict, hoped that Devi would be their ally. Devi believed that the Maoist party would deliver justice but the word ‘rape’ is missing from the history books being written about the Civil War.
Disillusioned, Devi wants to fight back.
‘Devi’ will tell two interweaving stories. One will be of Devi’s quest for justice as she gathers testimonies of other rape survivors and visits human rights lawyers, the UN, leaders in the UK, US and EU who supported both the war and peace process, as well as victim support groups to carve out the best course of action. The other will be her own story, a story of resilience in a patriarchal society where women’s bodies are weaponized. Devi still battles with the trauma of the rape in her family life.
‘Devi’ is the invisible war of the women who survived sexual violence during the conflict, told through the eyes of a survivor.
In June of 2019, Devi called me and gave me her diary in which she had detailed her life, including the rape and the aftermath. She expressed with urgency that she wanted me to tell her story. Politically, the Maoist former guerillas had merged with a mainstream political party. Now that they were part of the ruling establishment, the chances that victims of abuses would get justice had become slimmer. When a country goes through civil war, story tellers have an obligation to bear witness. As one of the few Nepali women in media, I spent some time traveling with an all-women battalion of guerillas during the conflict for a short film. Devi was a legend then. But over the years, my requests to meet her were declined. I understand why Devi could not talk for such a long time. When the #MeToo movement started, unpleasant memories of college sexual assault resurfaced. It took decades for me to overcome it and process it. I am in awe of Devi and her strength. These two decades of telling stories from Nepal has earned me people’s trust. An additional layer of confidence has been added by my researcher and my mentee, Aruna Ryamajhi. Aruna was a guerilla herself. Over several months, Aruna and I have been meeting Devi regularly, listening to her and familiarizing ourselves with her. We’ve recorded hours of audio interview, which has helped build trust. Devi has given us access to film her family life. Devi’s husband, also a former guerrilla, comes from the same ethnic community as me and he too is opening up. I’ve come to understand the burdens that Devi has to carry. Over the years, some women told me in confidentiality that they’d survived rape. They’d hoped that Devi would come to their support. But Devi had chosen the Maoist party over them. I often wonder if reaching out to me is Devi’s search some form of an absolution. I’ve been mindful that I don’t jeopardize the women who choose to share their stories to Devi – either by some careless exposure of their identities, or over-promising and disappointing them. I’ve been conferring regularly with human rights activists and lawyers who have worked with survivors before. I’ve found a team committed to telling stories of justice that those in power don’t want to be told.
The image on the screen is blurry. As the camera focuses, life around Devi is colorful, in fast motion. Only she is still. ‘Devi’ tells two interweaving stories with distinct styles. Devi’s current life, as a wife and a mother, as well as an activist, is an immersive verité. Devi’s current story will be divided between her journey as an activist and her life as a mother and wife in a modern world. The choices of camera lens will reflect Devi’s state of mind. Her personal life is shot with intimacy, capturing her sadness and joy. Devi’s diary takes us to her past and into her thoughts. Supported by archives of never before seen footage of the Maoist conflict, along with her memory created through cinematic metaphorical re-creations aided by actor’s voices, the film explores Devi’s traumatic past. Sexual violence has a power to isolate. Devi’s dark moments will be reflected, with the distortions of a fish eye or the distance created by a wide angle. As Devi ‘lost all images and colours’ after the rape, these images will be represented in desaturated colours. As Devi fights for justice, the film will travel from the chaos of Kathmandu to the often stark landscape of the hills and melancholic plains of Nepal. The vastness of Nepal’s landscape is in sharp contrast to the isolation that many other survivors are facing. All the other survivor will be faceless bodies– just the way they were seen and used by the men during the conflict. The film will use Nepali artists; from the modern pop songs that Devi’s daughter listens to, to the jubilant singing and dancing of revolutionary Maoist music, which Devi herself likes to sing. Devi and her mother are both musical and their original songs will also feature in the film. The vastness and ruggedness of the Nepali landscape – beautiful but scarred – will be used as a metaphor for the difficulties Devi has had.
Subina Shrestha is a filmmaker and a journalist who likes to push boundaries in storytelling. Her documentaries on Al Jazeera have been used by various educational institutions including Columbia Journalism School, SOAS, and by human rights organizations in the Hague to discuss modern day slavery and the Maoist conflict. Her news coverage on Nepal’s earthquake earned her multiple awards including an Emmy nomination. Nominated for the Rory Peck Award for her camerawork while undercover reporting in Myanmar during cyclone Nargis, she was also a 2017 Nieman fellow at Harvard and a 2019 Global Media Maker fellow at Film Independent. https://shresthasubina.myportfolio.com/
Our priority is to follow Devi as she gathers the testimonies of women across Nepal. This is the part of the film that needs to be most cautiously approached and has been most disrupted by coronavirus as it is impossible to interview these women safely and sensitively anywhere except an enclosed space. Following that we will be following Devi on the campaign part of her journey as she attempts to take the testimonies to the Nepal parliament also to the international community, once travel is allowed. We would like to see Devi find a “result” for herself and the women she meets. But the struggle towards that will be a fascinating story, whatever happens. Whenever we cannot film that journey then we will be capturing the conflicts Devi is struggling with at home, between herself and her daughter. And also with her own mother.
We are necessarily editing as we go as the film makers are not able to be in the same room. We hope to have the funding in place to be able to attach an experienced feature editor by the start of 2022.
Total budget – $381,409
Pre-Production/ Research: Jan 2019 – March 2020 – the story is in continuous development as we adapt around Coronavirus and Devi’s path changes. Production: October 2020 – mid 2022 – we are currently in this phase. Our crew are now camping near Devi in order to isolate from their family’s and continue shooting. Devi’s daughter is also now filming on a small camera we have trained her on. Post Production: January 2020 – end 2022 – we are remote editing as we shoot. Premiere – early 2023