WE HOMES CHAPS

This film explores the fragile ground where love and  unlove cohabit, illuminating a rare space where the two are in close proximity but distinct. A unique Scottish Presbyterian home was founded by a missionary at the turn of the century in British India. It takes in orphans, mainly destitute Anglo-Indian children, and subsequently, children of Tibetan refugees and other Himalayan people in strife. Providing an all-round education with old-fashioned and colonial Christian values, it is a home for many that would not have had one.  But it is also a universe unto itself, a “total  institution.” For a “Homes chap” the institution is a surrogate parent, and an anchor and source of life-long attachment.

It is a love with an edge, a difficult love. Why that is so is what Tibetan filmmaker and Homes alumnus Kesang Tseten attempts to answer when he and his classmates of 29 years ago, return to the site of his childhood in the Village for Children in the lap of Kanchenjunga,  during the heightened emotions of reunion and the institution’s centennial celebrations. This is a searing and yet lyrical reflection on displacement, marginality, nostalgia, the powerful hold of early experience, and the nature of love.

Given that, one understands the strong allegiance former students have toward their old institute, except, there is an edge to this love. The OGBs (Old Girls and Boys) never tire of recounting adversities experienced under the strictest and most authoritarian teachers and house-parents, going hungry throughout their schooling, and immersion in the Anglo-Indian moral universe of the institution. Some alumni also bear the scars of their long separation from home, others from abandonment.  For Tibetans like Tseten, uprooted from their own country, “the Homes” prepared them for a new life in exile while estranging them from their homes and culture.  “We Homes Chaps” does not assign blame but suggests that good intentions alone are not enough for children.

Gently though unwavering, the documentary looks at and brings illumination to one of the most difficult challenges: that of reconciling with our past, so that we may move forward. This deeply personal film affirms the powerful hold early experience has on us all.

Dir/Pro by Kesang Tseten
Camera Ranjan Palit
Additional camera Reena Mohan
Editing Kesang Tseten, Passang Dorjee, Nirmal Chander

Blurbs

“Imagine an island within an island within an island in the mists of Northern India… eloquently filmed… great subtlety… “
Matthew Finch, WBAI radio, New York City

“We Home Chaps is a documentary that reveals the subjective terrain between home as a physical place and home as a psychic space. We walk away with the sense that attachment is the guiding light of our psychological journey.  Kesang Tseten has given us a documentary that touches our hearts.”
Jack Wiener, psychoanalyst, New York City

We Homes Chaps is the gentlest of films – still, reflective, slowly plumbing that pool of pain called childhood. Everyone should see this film at least once – and be prepared to weep not just for the lost childhood of the Homes chaps, but their own. Paromita Vohra

DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT

“Instead of looking at the Other – the poor farmer, the tribal person, usually focusing on their guise as the exotic or the victim, always the distant Other – I thought it might be interesting and useful to point the camera at ourselves.”

“The idea that drove this film was very real, to me and many others who had gone to this Scottish Presbyterian boarding school for mainly disadvantaged children.  It was to explore what I call this “difficult” love. Here was this unusual institution, that had shaped us profoundly, that we loved, and yet, I felt we always vividly remembered the difficult times, the humiliation; it wasn’t just a boarding school thing because here most of us were “sponsored” children from difficult fractured backgrounds.  In fact, it was almost as if this extraordinary love we had was to do with the difficulties of the time”

“To my astonishment, gradually, as we were shooting during the happy reunion celebrations, people began to open themselves up and to talk about those less savory aspects of their experience. Sometimes, as in my own case, discovering or re-feeling long-dormant feelings even.  At the end, rather than shy away, people were seeking the camera out, for moments of personal reckoning. The challenge lay in conveying these while not distorting or hiding the very real positive emotions that my friends felt about their experience.  In a sense, it is a very adult film about school days.”

REVIEWS

Suzanne Bessenger
University of Virginia

          We Homes Chaps is Tibetan filmmaker Kesang Tseten’s attempt to explore the memories and experiences of the primary “family” of his childhood: a post-colonial British boarding school called “Dr. Graham’s Homes” in the northern Indian town of Kalimpong. The film opens with Tseten returning to the “Homes” in the year 2000 to celebrate the institution’s hundredth anniversary, and to participate in a reunion with classmates he has not seen since his own high school graduation years before.

          Tseten narrates the history of the boarding school over photographs of British colonial India and scenes of the lush tea plantations surrounding the school. In 1889 Dr. John Anderson Graham, a Christian missionary from Scotland, Arrived in the Himalayan town of Kalimpong. There he encountered what he saw as an abandoned population: illegitimate children of British tea field planter’s and the Indian fieldworkers. In 1900 he founded the boarding school called “Dr. Graham’s Homes” to serve as a home and school for the children he saw as bereft of any familial, cultural, or institutional support, rejected by both their fathers’ and their mothers’ societies. The Homes eventually became a distinguished school for children from privileged families, as well as other displaced children from Nepal, Sikkim, Naga, Bhutan, Lushai and Tibet.

          Returning to the school for only the second time in 29 years, Tseten films his reunions with his classmates and quickly establishes for them and for the film’s audience his motivation for making this film: unraveling his own contradictory feelings and memories of the central parental influences of his childhood, and making sense of the patchwork post-colonial childhood experiences the Homes had provided them. Tseten and his classmates repeatedly bring up the mixed feelings they experience towards the Homes: gratitude for the superior education and opportunities received; affection for their classmates; discomfort, in some cases, for not having conformed to the school population’s Anglo-Indian beauty ideal; relief, as Tseten himself says, at having “survived it all”; and grief for their childhood selves and their total loss of a sustained, intimate family unit while growing up. Tseten and his classmates casually drop heartbreaking details of their childhood Homes experiences throughout the film, preventing the viewer from forgetting the unbridgeable emotional and cultural gap between the children and their “parent” institution: his house “uncle” calling Tibetan children by their initials because he couldn’t pronounce their names; the rows of beds in the dormitories, each one with an identical teddy sitting atop the pillow; stories of sitting through Christian church services and feeling “forced” to be a Christian; learning of the death of a father through an impersonal letter.

          Oddly lacking from the film are the voices of the teachers, house “parents”, and administrators who comprised the Homes school itself. There are a few expectations to this almost complete silence: Tseten films a priest in a pulpit delivering a sermon during a church service with the current students and grown alumni in attendance, and two Indian teachers are interviewed briefly. On the whole, however, the presence of the actual people who govern the Homes school is depicted only through narratives of the now grown students. Several of the alumni are filmed reading their school “files”, written by school administrators, in which such personal things as their character and potential personality traits are discussed. The effect is an odd animation of the figures of the Homes authorities by the alumni themselves.

          The filmmaker’s portrait of this boarding school and the alumni’s experiences of it may have been broadened by giving Homes’ administrators he opportunity to speak. However, by denying the school’s representatives the chances to speak, Tseten does two things. He accentuates the impersonal nature of the school as experienced by the alumni as children, and effectively portrays the attempts by the alumni both to revisit their childhood selves and to understand the Homes world from which their adult selves emerged. In face, the technique almost mimics a child’s ultimately futile attempts to understand the logic and machinations of the larger world in whose hands his or her fate wholly, and terrifying, rests.

          Ultimately, the effectiveness of “We Homes Chaps” lies in the “we” of the films title: director Kesang Tseten himself is a Homes alumnus, and incorporates himself into the narrative of the story. By reflexively turning his camera lens onto himself and his relationships with his classmates, Tseten delivers a portrait of post-colonial Himalayan boarding school life in a way that no one but an insider and a participant could.

          This film is significant for being one of the first made by a Tibetan filmmaker. However, this story is not only about a Tibetan refugee’s struggle to maintain cultural and religious identity in Diaspora. Rather, the film is significant for its portrayal of displaced people struggling to uncover and maintain authentic personal, cultural and religious identities separate from the post-colonial institution and world, which raised them. The film would be useful for courses touching upon such subjects as colonialism, cultural displacement, maintaining cultural identity in Diaspora, the refugee experience, family and adoption, and even childhood psychology. In addition, it provides a counterpoint to David MacDougall’s series about another Indian boarding school, the Doon School.

Nepali documentary challenges traditional presentation

by Narayan Wagle

Kathmandu:  A film by a Nepali filmmaker – in this on-going South Asian documentary film festival organized by Himal Magazine –  has demonstrated that documentary filmmaking can find perfect tandem with audience in theory and  presentation.  This film, in contrast to Nepali feature films which are cheap imitations of Hindi films, provides a fresh perspective in the genre of documentary filmmaking and places Nepali documentary filmmakers in the same league as its South Asian counterparts.

 Kesang Tseten Lama’s film, “We Homes Chaps,” exhibited in the packed theatre of the Russian Cultural Centre on Saturday was immensely successful in touching the hearts of the audience,  leaving many moist with tears.  His  film isn’t about some devastating event nor does it deal with an inconsolable tragedy. Rather, it is a simple story presented with content and flow in unison so as to have evoked the audience emotion.

 Shown on the third day of the third Film South Asia ’01 in Kathmandu, ‘We   Homes Chaps’ recounts a journey the filmmaker made to his school  after three decades since graduating for his school’s centenary. Established in 1900 in the small town of Kalimpong with Mt. Kanchenjunga in its background by a Scottish missionary Dr. Graham,  “the Homes” was  intended for Anglo-Indian orphans and displaced children. Later, the  school took in Nepalis, Bhutanese, Khasi, Naga and Tibetans from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds.

 During the centennial celebrations, Kesang meets up with his classmates after a very long time (batch of 1971). Like the filmmaker himself, many OGBs (Old Girls & Boys, as they are called),  now migrated to London, Melbourne, and New York, have made that long journey back to the school where they spent 10-14 years of their lives, from childhood  to adulthood. As expected, memories and emotions are evoked and, gradually, these OGBs reveal glimpses of their feelings about their childhood. Some, with tears in their eyes, remark on the difficult and precarious life that would have awaited them if not for the ‘Homes’. Many had no homes or families to go back to.  As one said, “we found home here when we didn’t have one of our own.”

Though the film tells a simple impassioned story, why it stands out from the crowd is its unique presentation.  Much of the credit for this uniqueness goes to Kesang for his obvious storytelling skills, as he effortlessly weaves himself in the film as one of the characters while providing the point of view and narration, as well as to Ranjan Palit’s brilliant camera work. With almost a feature-film-like plotting this documentary has broken the traditional mould of documentary filmmaking. The director amply demonstrates that he is not only a sensitive writer but possesses equal command of the filmmaking medium.

 This documentary, though dealing with reality, has a quality of being a wholly imaginative feature film, but unlike many documentaries, it doesn’t show complicated and intense interviews nor does it indulge in intricate background or incident.   This almost-70 minutes long film glides like music and the audience unconsciously finds itself participating in the filmmaker’s journey. For his serene, sensitive and thoughtful film, Kesang won a heartening applause and made the host country proud.  The heartening reception of the film was also evident in the remarks made by filmmakers of the sub-continent present in the screening. ‘We Homes’ Chap’ is arguably the best film of the festival shown till now.

The Homecoming

by Paromita Vohra