Shades of Exile in Village of Women and Drapchi Elegy
By Arundhati Sethi
The 17th IAWRT Asian Women’s Film Festival – India Chapter opened on the 5th of March 2021, with a thoughtfully crafted singing bouquet of nine films. While each of the screened films had their own captivating hue, I find myself compelled to pick, to hold and to gaze, to touch and to inhale, two out of the vibrant lot. Two distinct documentaries, Village Des Femmes (Village of Women) directed by Tamara Stepanyan and Drapchi Elegy by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam managed to enfold me with their lingering fragrance, bittersweet.
Accompanied by Stepanyan, we are led into Lichk, a radiant yet melancholic Armenian village. Like a modern remnant of a twisted folk tale, this is quintessentially a village of women. All the working-age men spend the longer part of each year in Russia, to eke out a living. In their absence the sturdy women of Lichk tend to everything, from land to animals, from children to the elderly. What emerges before us is a sundered homeland. We learn of the sons, husbands and fathers forced out of their homes, ‘exiled’ as the villagers say, due to economic necessity. We hear of them more often than we see them in the film. They figure as consistent allusions in every conversation, story and song exchanged in the village. It is however, in the intimate witnessing of the women left behind, that the film’s poignant strength shines most. Though unlike their adrift husbands, the women are rooted, this strange sundering renders their sense of home unwhole too. Both the far flung men and the landlocked women experience a bitter estrangement.
Through the length of the film we experience an almost inverted seasonal cycle that this village of women is caught in. Ironically, it is winter that is desperately awaited in Lichk, the only time the men return to their homes, whereas the arrival of spring, as the landscape begins to thaw, marks instead, loss and separation. Stepanyan’s film in this way beautifully conjures paradoxical affective landscapes. In winter, for example, Lichk transitions into a frozen white world but also begins to glow with the warmth of reuniting families, in hearths that tinkle with song and drink. There is of course a contrast highlighted between the wintry exterior and the cozy interior spaces, but even within the home, the season seems tempered with currents of joy and sorrow. In a memorable scene in this winter sequence, we see Anushik and Aram’s three little children dancing by the decorated Christmas tree. The frames capturing their merry dance are entirely dark except the scattered glimmers of colorful light falling upon them, lighting sometimes their eyes, sometimes their smiles. And in fact, all through the film, there runs such a cross weave of light and darkness, of laughter and sighs, of separation and togetherness. We closely see the people of Lichk negotiate this arduous repetitive cycle. At the same time, through the songs ringing out of the tired men’s lips, we are reminded of the larger cycle of displacement, de-homing and loss that frames Armenian history.
In spite of this extraordinary pathos enveloping their lives, in spite of the recurring declarations by the women considering their lives meaningless, experiencing time to be passing them by; the film manages to capture a different truth as well. We see from start to end, this community of women never passive, never resigned, but perennially as creators of meaning and sustainers of life. The film is brimming with shots of their ceaselessly laboring arms, kneading dough, swirling and baking bread, harvesting potatoes from the earth, stacking grass in the open fields, picking apples perched upon trees. We hear them tell tales and sing songs, filling the ‘emptied’ village with their powerful voices. We glimpse them laughing and dancing and giving strength to one another. The Village of Women gets etched in our minds not merely as a space of absence and loss, but also as a steady stage of life and resilience.
Stepping out of the expansive and elongated time-space of the Village of Women, we find ourselves led into a more constricted enclosure in Sarin and Sonam’s short documentary Drapchi Elegy. In contrast to the proliferation of communal spaces in Stepenyan’s film, the space in this film is predominantly inhabited by the solitary, often lonely presence of the protagonist. The camera follows Namdol Lamho, a Tibetan refugee seemingly leading an ordinary day in the city of Brussels. Enmeshed within this ordinary day however, is Lamho’s extraordinary history. In 1992, 28 year old Lamho, one among a group of nuns, was put into Drapchi prison for six years for peacefully protesting China’s hegemony, in the streets of Lhasa. While still enduring imprisonment and brutal torture in the largest prison of Tibet, these same nuns sang, recorded and smuggled to the outside world a series of powerful protest songs. This act of resistance unleashed a lengthening of their sentence and redoubled punishment. In the film, we see Lamho on the other side of this heroic trajectory. Having survived intense physical and mental torture at the hands of Chinese authorities, we see her forging a life in Europe on her own, exiled from a home still struggling for independence.
According to me, the film, though only located in Lamho’s present space of Brussels, brilliantly captures her lived experience of exile. The figure of exile inevitably experiences the convergence of the ‘here’ and the ‘there’, the present and the past. The film invites us to sense this convergence. When we see Lamho travelling in the city trains, we see the mundane visuals of her present European life. And yet, what the camera dwells on are the train’s closed doors, framed windows and grab handles that uncannily resemble handcuffs. These shots eerily echo Lamho’s past incarceration and at the same time make us wonder whether a psychological incarceration continues to grip her even today. Apart from cinematic strategies to emphasize the past being embedded in the present, the film often highlights through juxtaposition the two worlds Lamho straddles each moment. The visual and the audio track often converse dialectically. As Belgian station names and indicators flash before us in the opening scene, we hear Tibetan songs playing alongside. While she actively navigates this European city, she simultaneously is plugged into videos of Dalai Lama’s sermons. As she cooks and eats alone, her voiceover speaks of the community of prisoners she found comfort in, back in Tibet. At one point she also signals the disparity between her external and internal states. From the outside she is an active, healthy young woman, yet she speaks of internal wounds and aches that don’t leave her.
Very often in the film, the camera situates Lamho in states of motion, whether in trains or on foot. This obviously becomes emblematic of her continuing exilic status. At the same time, it also signals to me the emotional and spiritual journey she is consciously undertaking with each forward step. Her trauma fails to paralyze her. Her Buddhist practice deepens her psychological resources. Through her work at the old age home, she extends care and service to those in need and draws meaning and strength from it. What amazes and moves one long after the film is that despite the encounter with excessive Chinese brutality, despite the lingering struggle with loneliness in her new home, Namdol Lamho embodies the possibility of an expanded consciousness, capable of immense empathy and compassion. And last but not the least, the sense of unceasing motion that seems woven in the film reminds one that the struggle for Free Tibet is still underway, and there are many more miles to go before one can rest.
Both these films in their distinct and nuanced ways explore ideas of home and exile, of estrangement and community, of oppression and compassionate, soulful resistance.