Films set in Nepal have a tendency to explore the Man vs. Nature conflict with the peak of Mount Everest as their crowning jewel. Whether documentary or fiction, features such as J. B. L. Noel’s The Epic of Everest, which was re-released in the UK following its digital restoration in 2013, George Lowe’s The Conquest of Everest, and Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest depict the deadly trials of previous real-life expeditions.
Whereas western productions have their eyes on the world’s highest mountaintop, Nepalese cinema doesn’t concern itself with Mountain films as much. Min Bahadur Bham’s The Black Hen (Kalo Pothi) and Nischal Poudyal’s Riingata, for instance, focus on the impact that the 10-year-long Nepalese civil war had on people.
Dekel Berenson also takes an alternative route with his short film, Ashmina. Set in Pokhara, Nepal, the world’s center for paragliding, Berenson writes and directs a story inspired by a past trip about a 13-year-old girl, Ashmina (Dikshya Karki). Following her life, the plot dissects issues that arise not only from within, namely the restrictions women experience within the confines of a patriarchal society, but also from outside, as tourists enter the Nepali borders and have a somewhat negative effect on its culture.
Having visualized Ashmina as a social realist film, Berenson cast only non-actors and worked mostly with the available light on location. In close collaboration with a semi-professional crew comprised mainly by locals, he was able to blend in and capture on camera the natural behavior not only of the natives, but also of the tourists.
Besides that, Berenson gets the audience’s undivided attention as elaborate frames fill the screen, leaving the viewer in a state of stupor. It’s almost as if each shot is part of a fabricated reverie designed for the sole purpose to hypnotize every set of eyes fixed on them. The secret behind the spellbinding quality of Ashmina is not only Nepal’s nature, but also Vasco Viana’s cinematography.
The titular character of Ashmina, however, is neither hypnotized nor confused during the three-day period Berenson puts on display. Working at the landing field, she packs the parachutes of tourists in exchange for small tips, and tries to bring some form of financial stability to her home. This is not a sacrifice, but a duty. Forced to forget about her education, or any type of delightful detail in life, Ashmina is meant to follow orders—no questions asked.
It’s no surprise then, that a rare query here and there is met with disdain; every act of disobedience is worthy of a slap in the face, and nothing more. Perhaps that is why, after what she perceives as the final betrayal, Ashmina goes beyond the Nepalese socially constructed script of female subjectivity; a violent, but silent, outburst that even though it leaves the viewer startled, it also raises the question: “who’s really at fault here?”