Tears in Korea

From Republica Daily (9 Dec, 2011)

The KIMFF, which opened on Thursday afternoon with uplifting words from smiling Mingma Sherpa, the summitteer of 14 peaks over 8,000 meters, suddenly entered into a world of heartbreak and introspection with the inaugural film, Buried in Tears, by Ashok Thapa.

Premiered at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival, the 42-minute documentary concentrates on the work of the musical band Stop Crackdown, comprising of migrant workers from Nepal, Indonesia and Burma.

With vocals in Korean language, the band highlights the challenges faced by job migrants in South Korea, the destination of choice among Nepal’s outward-bound labor force.

The audience at the festival opening was riveted as it watched Nepali workers speaking (and singing) in fluent Korean, and performing (and singing) with migrants from other countries.

Interestingly, the lead singer of Stop Crackdown and who evolves as the documentary’s central character is Minod Moktan (‘Minu’), looking every bit Korean as his Southeast Asian counterparts (Soe Moe Thu, guitar; Harry Ken Achmad, keyboard; Soe Thi Ha, bass; So Myung Hun, drums).

The rock band’s music and lyrics relate to hard work, homeland, and a demand for human rights for migrants.

The documentary is peopled by Nepalis, who have dared to speak out, with many deported for their troubles. Minod himself is sent back, and his departure and the heartbroken response of his band members form the poignant core of the production, which left many in the audience in tears.

The camera follows Minod to his home village in Pokhara, where he somberly watches video messages sent by his former band comrades.

Today, he teaches Korean to prospective migrants in Kathmandu, and was inconspicuously present as part of the KIMFF audience until asked by Festival Director Ramyata Limbu to stand, to an arousing ovation.

South Korea is regarded as an attractive destination by Nepal’s migrant labor, and the very existence of a migrant-dissident rock band indicates a democratic opening that is obviously not there in the same measure in other host societies for Nepali labor, especially the Gulf states and Malaysia.

It is easy to imagine the pain and pathos in regions where the fist is not allowed to clamp in protest. In South Korea, when Minod is taken into detention, there are activists and mainstream politicians who come out to demand his release.

Nevertheless, the film points to a palpable loss of dignity felt by the migrant workers in South Korea as well. One migrant says to the camera, “They wanted machines as the migrants but what they got were humans… We have helped build the South Korean economy, and we have a right to demand security.”

One of those seen early in the film, replete with protest headband, is Samar Thapa, an activist from the UML-affiliated trade union GEFONT. He too was deported and is now back with the GEFONT in Kathmandu overseeing its international work.

Thapa was present at the screening of Buried in Tears, and I asked him whether the kind of activism depicted in the documentary jeopardizes the future of Nepali labor in South Korea.

He replied, “Not at all. In fact, our demonstrations and activism helped sensitize the South Korean public to the humanity of migrants. The activism of Nepali migrants is what secured the job permit system for us, something that the manpower companies originally opposed. And we were instrumental in establishing what has now become the migrant political party in South Korea, which supports migrant workers from everywhere.”

The film’s editing is a bit rough, probably having to do with the fact that the work was rushed to premiere at the KIMFF. Director Ashok Thapa’s effort will obviously be even more effective than it already is with the glitches ironed out.

The production, meanwhile, has obviously benefited from the input of director Kesang Tseten (who has been credited), well known for his recent trilogy on job migrants to the Gulf.

The documentary is made relevant for the Kathmandu audience because Nepalis seem to play such a large role in the migrant labor landscape of South Korea which, of course, includes Bangladeshis, Indonesians, Filipinos, Burmese and others.

One leaves the theatre hoping that the job migrants of Nepal continue to have access to the green pastures of South Korea, enjoying better rights and income tomorrow than they do today.

Buried in Tears was a good way to begin the KIMFF, which also has other submissions from Nepal, including Journey to Yarsa by Dipendra Bhandari, Lamaharu Anyolma by Ramesh Khadka, Ma Khushi Chhu byAbinash Bikram Shah and Anup Poudel, Secrets of Dhaulagiri by Prabesh Poudel, and The Desert Eats Us by Kesang Tseten.

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