Nepal, the roof of the world, is the setting for White Sun. The breathtaking panoramas from the Himalayan peaks dominate its skyline. Buddhist monasteries nestle in the mountains, oasis of spirituality. However, Nepal’s less well known for being one of the poorest countries in the world. Its inhabitants earn little more than €600 per day. They have been largely untouched by the expansion of global markets that have transformed its powerful neighbors.
Nepal is squashed between China and India. Both countries consider the country within their sphere of strategic interest. Being isolated from the effects of globalization, the country has somewhat of a retro feel about it. This is also true in its politics as its main political party – the Communist Party of Nepal – still declares itself to be inspired by Marxist-Leninist-Maoist doctrine. Quite retro indeed.
An archaic and slightly mystical air pervades Nepal and WHITE SUN, the film by the emerging Nepalese director maker Deepak Rauniyar presented at the Horizons section of the 73rd Venice Film Festival. The film is a delicate, modest yet faithful portrayal of rural Nepalese society after the civil war between Nepalese army and the Maoist guerillas.
Deepak Rauniyar’s use of allegory is particularly poignant in WHITE SUN. He uses it to great effect to allude to the transformation of Nepal from a semi-feudal Hindu monarchy to a new Republic, federal and secular. The allegorical device around which the whole story turns is the death and funeral of the ageing village leader Chitra, an allegory for the difficult transition from the old to the new Nepal.
Upon the death of Chitra, his son Chandra is called back to his community and family after years of exile. Chandra is a convinced Maoist activist and an idealist. He renounced all family ties and gave up his old life to fight for the Maoist cause. He even adopted a new combat name – Angri. He was convinced that the only way to obtain justice and overthrow the Monarchy and the feudal caste system was through a violent socialist revolution.
The film follows Chandra as he leaves his village years earlier to join the guerrilla fighters in the forest. He leaves behind his wife Durga (the character exhibits the most moral authority in the whole film) and his father, member of the National Democratic Party Nepal, the right-wing party supporting the Nepalese Monarchy.
The whole meaning of the film WHITE SUN is condensed into the scene that takes place at Chitra’s death bed and cremation while Chandra and his brother Suraj squabble. Chandra receives a similar treatment to many guerrilla fighters returning home after a civil war. Not given a hero’s welcome, people accusing him of having contributed to a war that divided the country into two and caused 17,000 deaths. The village of Nepaltra is a microcosm for the divisions caused by the civil war. It sought to liberate the Nepalese people from the oppressive caste system and the conservative religious beliefs which Chandra’s own people don’t seem willing to give up.
“Why have you Maoists made so many promises.” (An elderly villager)
“We thought we’d win the war. Now we’re in power, we have to make compromises.” (Chandra)
The eternal truth that even the most idealistic political movements end up making compromises to keep power takes center stage in the narrative.
In the meantime, while Chitra’s corpse lies on the river bank waiting to be cremated, the historic signing of the Constitution is announced on the radio.
On September 20th 2015 the democratic and secular Republic of Nepal was born, inspired by the principles of ethnic and religious pluralism for the first time in country’s 239 year history. This wouldn’t have been possible if the Maoist forces hadn’t laid down their arms and transformed themselves into a mainstream political party. The Maoists accepted political ‘normalization’ in exchange for the abolition of the Monarchy after 240 years. The peace deal was ratified by the Parliament and signed by all parties in 2006 after 10 years of armed struggle.
During the civil war the Maoists sought to give political representation to the most marginalized sections of the Nepalese population. In particular, they fought for women and other indigenous and ethnic groups like the dalit. They are are on the lowest rungs of the social hierarchy and known as “untouchables”. Nepal is home to around 100 diverse ethnic groups. They live side by side without mixing with each other. It’s a Hinduist version of multiculturalism in which different groups are segregated by a rigid caste system. The ethnic group most penalized within the caste system is the madhesi from the western region of Terai on the border with India. They are Nepalese but ethnically and linguistically Indian.
“Can’t you see how beautiful the country is that your party tried to destroy.?” (Suraj)
“It’s to end this injustice. The ruling class hasn’t changed for 2 centuries.” (Chandra)
“And what justice have you Maoists brought?” (Suraj)
Public opinion about the role of the Maoists in Nepal is strongly divided. They haven’t transformed the country into a socialist republic, nor have they implemented land reforms to redistribute land amongst the peasant farmers. Mostly importantly, they haven’t cracked down on the corruption that pervades the Nepalese society. Rather than bringing revolution, many of the racist and classist inequalities are still an ever present force in the post monarchic Nepal. The leaders of all the main parties, including many Maoists, all belong to the upper castes. As a result, the new Nepal leaves many people dissatisfied, including Maoist supporters, despite the necessary and longed for pacification. After having had to flee their homes and see their loved ones killed, ethnic minorities find themselves politically under-represented. This is because the electoral system is less proportional than the previous one (45% rather than 58%). What’s worse is that they are territorially and politically divided as the boundaries of the federal state’s 7 provinces split up the main ethnic groups.
Dissatisfaction is very strong among women. The new constitution denies women the right to transmit their citizenship to their children, which is the exclusive preserve of the father, even if he’s a foreigner. This is a well thought out expedient implemented deliberately to discourage Nepalese women from marrying foreigners, especially Indians. However, this penalizes some ethnic groups as marrying Indian men common among the Madhesi minority who live on the border with the Indian state of Bihar. This constitutional device, which aims to protect the purity of Nepalese ethnicity, is just one of many attempts that Nepal is making to protect itself against New Delhi continually meddling in its affairs. Unfortunately, Nepalese women are paying the price for Nepal’s difficult relationship with its neighbors, including China. They are relegated to 2nd class citizens, which is perverse in a constitution that protects the rights of the LGBT community.
Durga, Chandra’s ex-wife, is one such woman. She finds herself strongly discriminated against. Her daughter, the little Pooja, doesn’t have a father. Therefore she doesn’t have any citizenship (there are 4 million stateless in Nepal). She can’t go to school, get a passport, won’t be able to vote or own property. Durga is willing to marry Suraj, her former brother-in-law, as long as he’s willing to adopt Pooja as his daughter. In that way she will be able to get a father’s signature on the documents that Durga needs to get Pooja’s citizenship. Chandra has long denied his paternity of Pooja but agrees to recognizing her in the end.
Old Chitra’s dead body is lain out on a wooden stretcher, wrapped up in the flag of the Nepalese monarchy. As it’s carried down the steep hills that lead to the river (following the Hinduist burial rites), Chitra’s corpse is “accompanied” by the frequent arguments between Chandra and the men from the village.
“Your father always supported the King. Do you Maoists believe in cremation? I thought that reformers like yourself didn’t believe in rites like this one.” (the village priest to Chandra)
Chandra becomes more and more isolated in the face of the bureaucratic obstacles to his father’s cremation. According to Hinduist cremation rituals, the deceased’s body should be cremated the same day as death. He asks help from the head of the party, Candiana, who has arrived in the village in a helicopter to celebrate the marriage of his daughter. Agni, the fighter, “without which, we won’t win democracy”.
Unfortunately for Chandra, Candiana doesn’t want his daughter’s wedding day to be taken up by bureaucratic affairs.
Times have changed. Politics has taken the place of war. The current Prime Minister is “Comrade Prachanda”, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a former Maoist revolutionary. It’s a time for realpolitik and unfortunate, but necessary compromises.
“They’re egoists who I risked my life for. They wouldn’t be here to celebrate if I hadn’t risked my life for them.” (Chandra)
Badri, an orphan child porter without a home, closes WHITE SUN’s metaphorical circle. He likes Chandra. Until he finds out that he had been a Maoist fighter.
“You’re a Maoist; you killed my parents.”