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Following The Story Of A Monk, A Mischievous Girl, And A School Where ‘Magic Happens’

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Editor’s Note: What happens when you realize what your true calling in life is? Is life then easier or that much more difficult? Lobsang Phuntsok, once a spiritual leader in the US, returned to India to an area close to Guwahati to set up a community that takes care of orphaned and neglected children. One among them is Tashi Drolma. A mischievous child with a troubled past in whom Lobsang sees the potential to blossom and grow. Directors Johnny Burke and Andrew Hinton in their moving film, follow these two characters who tell us so much about how amidst all the darkness, there is still a silver lining. Following are excerpts from an interview with co-director Andrew Hinton.

This interview was originally published on the DIFF Blog, here

Lobsang Phuntsok’s story is revealed in a wonderful scene early in the film, when he’s telling the children a story before bedtime. Was this a revelation to you as filmmakers as well, and how was your interaction with Lobsang prior and during the shooting of the film?

Lobsang is an amazing man whose own epic life story was really the inspiration for the film. He was a gracious host at the community, and we felt very honoured that he trusted us to come and tell the story of the work/magic happening at Jhamtse Gatsal. We knew about his back story and wanted to somehow get that into the film in a way that wasn’t an interview, so it was perfect when he shared the story with the kids before bedtime one night.

How did you come across Jhamtse Gatsal and decide to shoot a film there?

A couple of years ago I was in India researching a project in Nagaland, and I got an assignment to visit a remote school called Jhamtse Gatsal. Jhamtse is a two-day drive from Guwahati, along bumpy winding roads and tracks dotted with groups of women breaking rocks down to gravel with hammers. We drove the last few miles in the dark until the track ended and we were met by 80 pairs of blinking eyes. After walking the welcome line of kids and teachers in a daze, I felt someone throw a little pair of arms around me. Then another. And another. And I realised I’d come to a special place. My three-day visit turned into three weeks.

Eighteen months went by before I managed to raise the funding to return to tell their story. This time I had a co-conspirator in Johnny Burke – editor and filmmaker extraordinaire- who joined a couple of weeks later. And so on a bench looking out across the valley to Bhutan, we spent many hours discussing life, filmmaking and the search for meaning. We wrestled with the themes we saw in Lobsang’s work and talked about ways to somehow capture and share the magic we caught glimpses of.

Tashi Drolma is a great representative of the growth these children go through since they’re introduced to Jhamtse Gatsal, as well as a kind of reflection of Lobsang’s childhood. Was the choice to use her as one of the central characters obvious from the moment you got there, or how did she grow on you?

I had met Lobsang on my first visit to the community in 2012 but Tashi arrived a few months before we got there in October 2013 to make the film. She made her presence known pretty quickly – whenever there was a fight or a tantrum she was always the source of the crying or screaming. She’s a big personality in a small body and was definitely having trouble adjusting to life in the community. We were very fortunate to be there when that started to shift and she began to very slowly make friends and soften. She had obviously been through a lot of difficult stuff in her short life, and she was wild and unpredictable. All of which made her a pretty compelling person to follow around so that’s what we started doing.

It is clear from the film that Lobsang can only accept a small fraction of the requests he gets from families to take their children to Jhamtse Gatsal, and we get an impression of how hard it is to make these decisions in a few scenes. How was it to follow Lobsang to these villages where families are desperate to give their children away?

This was one of the most surprising experiences we had during the making of the film. We expected Lobsang to be greeted like a hero when he visited the villages but often it was the opposite. He’s known as the man who says ‘No’ (in the film he explains that they’ve had over a thousand requests to take kids into the community and only been able to say yes 85 times). We realised what a difficult position this puts him in – he understands better than anyone that sometimes it’s a matter of life and death and his answer will impact a family and a child in a very profound way. But he’s got finite resources and space. So it was pretty heartbreaking to see that despite his desire to help, he’s unable to save everyone.

Besides all the festivals and awards the film has gotten so far, you decided to distribute the film through Video on Demand platforms, such as HBO and Vimeo. Do you believe this is where the future of filmmaking is headed, and that traditional distribution methods are not being able to deal with the growing influx of new films made?

We are really learning about the life cycle of a film on this project. There are so many ways to reach audiences: the film has played well at festivals – especially mountain themed festivals – and has picked up 8 awards internationally. Vimeo seemed like a natural home – I won the Vimeo Documentary Award in 2012 and some of that prize money went into this film. So far, the ability to sell our film directly has been really exciting even if the numbers aren’t huge. But we’re also working with a sales agent who has been handling TV sales. Overall though, nothing can compare with the reach and support of a network like HBO, who have been amazing. They really supported the film in the US with lots of press and it gave us a great platform to launch it in the rest of the world.

Have you been in touch with Jhamtse Gatsal since you left, and is there anything you could share with us?

We’ve stayed in close contact with the community and hope to remain connected for many years to come. We decided to sponsor Tashi Drolma so we’ll be following her from afar while she completes her education at the community. She’s doing well, making friends and settling in to life there. Someday we’ll go back and pick up her story again. Lobsang joined us on Skype for a screening in NY recently, which was great. I think he’s been a little puzzled by the success of the film so it was wonderful for him to have a chance to interact with the audience and find out why they enjoyed it.

To read the full interview, head here.

‘Tashi And The Monk’ will have its India Premiere at the Dharamshala International Film Festival on Nov 6 at 11 AM.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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