I tied up my hands
With the chains of loneliness
I will miss you no more
I put my memory into disrepair
Under the weight of forgetfulness
I will long for you no more
Now I send you my heart
In this dish of poetry
So that I won’t fall in love with you
These are the words with which Neasa Ni Chianain ends Fairytale of Kathmandu. The lines are from a poem written by Cathal O Searcaigh, and Ni Chianain reads them over images of the poet walking alone among the hills of Donegal. It is quite appropriate, this certain mixture of imagery and poetry, for this film is about the relationship between Ni Chianain and O Searcaigh, and how that relationship came to an end.
There has been a ton of commentary on this film since it was shown last week on RTE. I finally got to see it last night, and I was struck by one thing: the topic of the film may be O Searcaigh; but the subject - what the film is actually about - is Ni Chianain. More specifically, it is about Ni Chianain´s sense of betrayal and, to a lesser degree, her sense of morality as well.
Some people have asked why Ni Chianain did not make a more general film about sex tourism in Nepal, about why she did not show the other westerners in Kathmandu who pick up teenage girls and have sex with them. I think the answer is quite simple: none of the other sex tourists were friends with Ni Chianain. The film is not an investigation into Nepal, or Nepalese society. It is the story of how a filmmaker lost an old friend but found a new topic.
In the following clip, the owner of the hotel at which O Searcaigh is staying asks Ni Chianain if he can speak to her on camera. He has something to say.
The owner tells Ni Chianain that all westerners in Nepal want something, that all their talk of help is just “blah blah”. He wishes that westerners just helped without terms and conditions, and that they opened their eyes to the poverty and to what westerners are doing in poor countries. Ni Chianain threats this as her epiphany, the moment when she realized that she had to open her eyes to what O Searcaigh was doing. Thing is, that’s not what the owner said: he was talking about all westerners, including her.
He wanted to get his message out. There is nothing to suggest that he saw Ni Chianain in any way different to all the other westerners he had come across. Indeed, Ni Chianain makes it clear that she had never spoken to the man outside of housekeeping issues. It is also clear that she does not see herself as one of “them” - one of those westerners who comes to Nepal to get something for themselves. In some ways, Ni Chianain is guilty of a level of self-delusion as well. She believes herself to be the “good” westerner.
The final clip is the moment when Ni Chianain confronts O Searcaigh about his relationships in Nepal - the gifts and presents and the sex.
Ni Chainain talks about how O Searcaigh´s spell has been broken, and how the Nepalese prayers and flags around his houses did not seem so exotic anymore. (I would have presumed that her trip to Nepal would have done the job with regard to exoticism, but no matter.)
Furthermore, she gives the impression that this is the first time we meet this new, changed Ni Chainain - the one who sees her former friend in such a changed light. This is, to say the least, a bit of a cheat on her part. The new Ni Chainain has been with us through very cut and every edit of every scene. She may not have directly spoken, but film has a language, and Ni Chainain has been letting us know what she thinks since the opening credits.
The final scene is a note from Ni Chainain, letting us know that no crime was committed by O Searcaigh. All the young men were on or over the legal age limit in Nepal. This makes it all the more clear that Ni Chainain´s outrage is a moral one. She is not alone in this, for morality has dominated discussion since before the national screening.
It is not often I get to say this, but Fintan O´Toole´s article (Irish Times, sub required) on the film is simply wrong. In it he tried to compare O Searcaigh´s action to those of Micheál Ledwith, former president of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. O’Toole peels away all of what Micheál Ledwith did, and was accused of, until he gets to a position where he can give a comparison between the two men. (Basically, if Ledwith was more like THIS, instead of like THAT, then with THIS we see that his THIS is comparable in places to O Searcaigh´s THIS. Jessica Fletcher would be proud.)
Fairytale of Kathmandu is a film about delusions. O Searcaigh comes across as a sex tourist. He may not have broken any laws, but what he was doing was wrong. He never sees it, never questions the morality of his actions. The delusion, however, does not stop there. Ni Chainain believes that her voice-over narrative of firm believer, then skeptic, then accuser, will somehow hide the fact that her visual narrative is a sixty minute accusation. Furthermore, it becomes clear that Ni Chainain does not see herself as a westerner - at least not in the way that the Nepalese think of westerners.
The film´s website carries a statement from Ni Chainain. In it she says:
Perhaps because I am a mother, and I was still nursing my second child during the shoot, my protective instincts were high. I kept thinking, “what if I were a Nepalese mother, and I had struggled to raise my children in such poverty? What if they had made it through their childhood and were about to embark on a third level education, with all the possibilities that would bring to their young lives? What if they met a friendly westerner… who offered to help them; but who in fact sexualized them? What would I do?”
All these questions are rhetorical ones; so, the answer must be: if I were a Nepalese mother struggling with poverty, and suddenly I was confronted with a predatory westerner hanging around my son, I´d go to the film board, get funding, and make a documentary about it.
Nepal is full of westerners with good intentions who think they know how the Nepalese think. Fairytale of Kathmandu tells us little about Nepal, but a hell of a lot about the Irish who go there - the moralistic filmmakers and the sex tourist poets.