January 19, 2010

My Interview with the Director of “Journey to Kathmandu.”

Journey to Kathmandu Fleet Foxes Trailer from Chris G. Parkhurst on Vimeo.

Goats, Sacrifice and Simplicity.

via Anna Brones.

Sometimes people come into our lives rather serendipitously. About a month ago I noticed that the apartment next to me looked a little different. A hand-painted sign that said “Journey to Kathmandu” sat outside the door next to a Buddha statue with what looked like some Southeast Asian currency in his hands. “Oh great, another Portlander that’s found themselves on a backpacking trip in Thailand,” I thought to myself in a snarky manner. I invited my neighbor over for dinner none the less; anyone that has a Buddha statue outside of their door has to have an interesting story. And he did.

Turned out that my neighbor had just returned from Nepal where he was filming a documentary. Before I met Chris Parkhurst in person, I got to see the trailer to the documentary he’s currently working on. The trailer for “Journey to Kathmandu” almost brought tears to my eyes, not because it deals with a death-defying story or a heart wrenching cause, but because in just a little over two minutes you see beauty and simplicity. Signs of a more conscious life.

Parkhurst is an inspirational filmmaker, someone who is grounded and has taken real life lessons from his travels. And even thought it’s still in production stage, the idea behind his documentary is pretty amazing and should be shared. So here’s a down to earth interview with the Director of Journey to Kathmandu.

Tell us a little bit about the film

‘Journey to Kathmandu’ is a film about the once-in-a-lifetime journey that goats make from their lives in Tibet to their sacrificial deaths in Kathmandu during the annual Dashain Festival.  Seen through the eyes of Kathmandu tea seller Prem Aryal and his family, we explore this all-important Nepali celebration and discover the significance of the yearly ritual that is the sacrifice.  It is a story of a dying ancient tradition, where goat herders and the annual trek are being replaced by mass producing goat farms in neighboring countries like India.  And it is a story that explores the relationship that animals and humans have in one of the world’s oldest religions and of the connection that people have to their land and to their food.

Where did your goat obsession start?

Hmm, not really an obsession.  In fact, I’d never really thought much about goats until the first time I went to Nepal.  I mean, I love goats.  They’re truly fascinating creatures and people really seem to respond to them.  It’s very difficult to look at a goat and not have some visceral reaction.  On one hand they can be the funniest, cutest looking creatures.  On another, they can look like the devil’s pet.

When did you start making documentaries and why?

I started working in documentaries in 2004, when I was asked to do sound on ‘Bombhunters.’  Up until then, I’d only been playing with shorts and the narrative form.  I’d never really thought all that much about docs, actually.  But then once I went to Cambodia to work on ‘Bombhunters’… well that kind of changed everything.

What has inspired you to focus on SE Asia?

As ‘Bombhunters’ opened my eyes up to the wonderful world of documentary films, it also inspired me to travel and do work in SE Asia.  Cambodia blew me away.  SE Asia, as a whole, blows me away.  It’s very difficult to explain to people who have never been.  Sure, all the cliches apply here.  It’s life-changing.  Once you’ve been, you’re forever changed.  But, you know, it’s absolutely true.

What can I say?  It just gets in your blood, in your heart, on the brain.  Once I’d done it, I only wanted more.  I was addicted.  Don’t get me wrong, this is not to say that countries like Cambodia, Nepal, Indonesia, Thailand… they’re not for everybody.  They’re uncomfortable. They’re dirty.  They’re corrupt.  They make you sweat.  They can make you sicker than you’ve ever been in your life.  You’ll see some of the most decrepit, sorry things you’ll ever see.  People without limbs.  Kids playing in garbage dumps the size of my neighborhood back home.  But I love that.  I really can’t get enough.

Because what goes along with all of this are the beautiful things that you don’t get here in the States.  Community. Perspective. Compassion. Appreciation for friends, family, your neighbors.  Soul and spirituality. People treat one another with a kind of dignity, honesty and love that seems to be lacking here.  These are all things that I hope to share with Westerners in hopes of creating some sort of better consciousness, some better ways of living and interacting with one another.

On your website it says “As a direct result of his work in developing countries, he has dedicated his life to putting a lens to the world’s amazing people and their stories.” It’s one thing to go to a place and film some snippets and another to put together a story that gets shared. How do you go about making a compelling piece?

I think that one of the key things, especially when making films about people in developing countries – cultures far different from our own – is to not allow my Western audience to create distance with the other culture that I’m presenting.  I don’t want the viewer to be able to simply just say, “Oh, well, that’s not my life or the way I live, it doesn’t affect me.”  I’ve got to be able to put a story in some sort of cultural context whereby a Westerner might be able to relate with how some one in a completely different culture lives their lives.  I want people to think, “Wow, that family isn’t really, ultimately all that different from my own.  We have things in common.”  I want people to see that we’re all infinitely, divinely connected.

‘Journey’ is a great example of this.  Americans are (thankfully) leaving nearly a decade of conservatism and xenophobia, whereby any religion that wasn’t Christian was somehow considered unacceptable, uncivilized or even, evil.  The subject matter in ‘Journey’ deals with a practice (animal sacrifice) and a religion (Hinduism) that at first glance might seem shocking or… well, uncivilized to a great many of us.  Well, it’s my responsibility – and one that I readily embrace- to open people’s minds and hearts in such a way that they might be able to see it from someone else’s perspective; they might be able to see how if they lived in Nepal or India or if they were to practice Hinduism, they might just be able to understand, if not actually condone, the practice.

What are some lessons that we in the Western World could take from these cultures?

See above on my inspiration for working in SE Asia.

How do you incorporate some of those lessons into your own life?

I’m trying to be less judgmental about people and things.  It’s so easy to judge.  But if I look at someone as if we are part of the same make-up or family or whatever, I can find common ground.  I can build bridges instead of creating distances or constructing walls.

I try to be more optimistic and appreciative of what I have in my life.  In the past, I was far more pessimistic or angry about a lot of the bullshit and injustice that I would see around me; things that I had no control over.  These things would anger me and I would make sure to let people know about these injustices of the world, make people see what was wrong in what we were doing, which isn’t inherently a bad thing.  The intentions were good, I wanted people to see what was wrong.  But when you don’t couple it with some kind of solution or have any kind of positive message, you’ve really done nothing to change the problem.  You’ve really only allowed it to continue.  You’ve got to give people some hope, otherwise, you give them a reason to simply shut it out by turning on the football game, surfing the Internet or going to the pub.

Lastly, I don’t have “things” anymore.  I don’t own a lot of shit. I have downsized considerably.  Sure, part of this is because it makes it much easier for me to go and work in a place like Nepal, at the drop of a hat, but it’s more than that.  I’ve seen what Nepalis or Cambodians really need to live.  It isn’t much.  And it’s not all the things that Westerners live with.  It certainly isn’t HDTV or Playstation or Hummers.


Parkhurst is still in the production stages of the documentary, and like all good, independent filmmakers, can always use support. Do you want to be a part of the Journey? Find out how here. You can also check out more photos and video from the documentary on the Journey to Kathmandu website or Facebook page.

Like I said, inspirational neighbor with an inspirational message. I’ve since made my own offering to the Buddha statue.

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