Glacial Flooding & Disaster Risk Management Knowledge Exchange and Field Training July 11-24, 2013 in Huaraz, Peru HighMountains.org/workshop/peru-2013
Snow River film project Stephanie Spray Harvard University, Anthropology Department, PhD candidate Snow River is a film project that employs ethnographic research and an attention to details to convey the impact of natural disasters on individuals and communities, as well as the work of scientists who travel to the remote regions where these events are triggered. Focusing on the repercussions of the May 5, 2012 flood of the Seti River one year later, Snow River is conceived with the hope that it is indeed possible to convey the trauma of natural disaster survivors, without reducing their very particular experiences and life circumstances to abstractions about the “social,” while simultaneously conveying hard facts about the physical environment that unleashes such events in the first place. To these ends, I documented in video the work of scientists, geographers, geomorphologists and hydrologists researching the origins of the event in the upper Seti River basin, as well as some of the intimate human stories of individuals who must live and work along the river that took away the lives and livelihoods of their families and friends. Natural disasters, such as the Seti River flood, will inevitably increase with climate change, and Snow River is intended to enfold the magnitude of these events on the physical environment with the stories of humans who must cope with the scars it leaves on them as individuals and communities. The flood On the morning of May 5, 2012, Keshari Pun heard an unusual sound echoing in the foothills surrounding her humble Nepali village; she thought that perhaps a helicopter was approaching from an expedition in the Himalaya. Then, as the sound increased to a deafening roar, she feared the worst and thought the hills would come tumbling down. That’s when she saw the massive brown dust cloud, and, not long thereafter, a 10 meter wave of churning earth, water, timber and boulders rushing down the river at a furious pace. She watched with horror as terraces and forest crumbled into the maelstrom. She was one of the fortunate, for her village was on a small plateau above the Seti River, the viscous waters of which would soon engulf the village below, Kharapani, and its famed natural hot springs. It was 9:30 in the morning. She and others made frantic phone calls to people in the Kharapani bazaar, warning them of the impending destruction. Many did not believe the news and thought it was a hoax. Ten minutes later, Kharapani was leveled to a boulder-‐ ridden muddy plane. Phul Maya Tamang had left early on the morning of May 5th to wash dishes for a middle class family two villages away from her rented one-‐room shack in
Kharapani. Her husband had gone to the river even earlier that morning to mine boulders from the riverbed of the Seti, the only work he could find as a landless man living in the area. Later, when Phul Maya returned, she learned that the river had swept away her husband. Stunned, she went to the Gandaki Hospital in Pokhara a few days later, where she sorted through body parts and found her husband’s right leg. She recognized it by the unusual shape of the big toenail, which years before he had injured while breaking boulders; years ago it had fallen off and, after growing back, it grew in two pieces. She cremated this leg on the banks of the Seti River shortly thereafter. Now, one year later, in May 2013, she is afraid to walk the banks of the river that took her husband, for she believes it is haunted, and says she can no longer eat meat, as it reminds her of the corpses she saw while searching for her husband’s remains.
Still from Snow River, Kharapani in May 2013
Origin of the flood While the flood was thought initially to be a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF), and reported as such by local and international media, this conjecture was soon disproved, since there were no glacial lakes in the river basin at the source of the flood. Scientists Jeffrey Kargel, from the University of Arizona, and Dhananjay Regmi, based in Kathmandu, developed a working hypothesis to address the key question about the flood: what was the source of water, and the means of storing it? Using satellite observations before and after the flood of May 5, 2012, and based on a helicopter-‐borne field reconnaissance a couple weeks after the disaster, they establish a working hypothesis: water had been blocked and stored by layers of rock fall into the deep gorge near the upper Seti River basin, filling it during the couple weeks prior to the disaster. Thereafter, a large rock and glacier ice avalanche on the morning of May 5, 2012 caused the sudden unleashing of this naturally dammed reservoir. This hypothesis was supported by an eyewitness report by an Avia Club
ultra-‐lite aircraft pilot, Alexander Maximov, who called the Pokhara air traffic control to report a massive avalanche off the face of Annapurna IV early on May 5, 2012.
Still from Snow River, Capt. Maximov in May 2013 Nepali Times, the dust cloud seen on May 5, 2012 Nearly one year later, in April 2013, a group of geographers and geomorphologists on a trip organized by Dr. Jeffrey Kargel and Dr. Dhananjay Regmi travelled by helicopter to a pitch camp at the upper Seti River basin where they collected samples, conducted surveys, and made detailed maps to supplement satellite data. I travelled and camped with them, shooting as they explored the surrounding landscape, which included what appeared to be an ancient lake bottom alongside glaciers tumbling down from Machhapuchhre, and as they planned a descent into what they later learned was a 500 meter slot canyon gorge, likely one of the deepest in the world. Later an Australian television crew joined the group, and I shot them as well, to provide commentary on the directed nature of most television documentaries. The group soon aborted the idea of a manned descent into the gorge, for they deemed it a “suicide mission,” and looked for an alternative solution. To these ends, I assisted them by customizing an everyday Nepali household item, a plastic barrel for storing water, in which we placed a number of GoPro cameras and weighted with sandbags, which was then deployed into the gorge via the helicopter. I also took footage from the helicopter itself using a mounted GoPro camera. While this footage will be in Snow River, it has also assisted the scientists in determining the depth and composition of the gorge.
Still from Snow River, upper Seti River basin in May 2013 I then spent weeks in the villages of Kharapani, Sadal, and other villages affected by the flood. This is how I met Kesari Pun, in whose home I stayed, and Phul Maya Tamang, whom I interviewed at length. I also documented the work of men as they worked with their feet in the very same river that killed Phul Maya’s deceased husband, performing the very same labor. I believe that the combination of the footage with the scientists and what I have with villagers will allow me to show two differing perspectives of this catastrophic event. Context and Style Most mainstream documentaries seek to present an event or topic in as seemingly a holistic view as possible; to distill their film subjects’ experiences into manageable sound bites; and to convey that the documentary reveals or witnesses something already past. In my work, I wish to keep the viewer in the immediacy of the moment, such that the present time of the film feels like an unfolding in itself, rather than documentation of something remote or in the past. I attempt this in shooting techniques and editing, seeking to allow time to unfold within shots to convey a sense of how time passes in a particular place. I attend not only to what people say, but how they say it and how they live it—or how they don’t. Most of what I shoot is “observational,” in that I usually do not interview film subjects, with the hope that what we need to know will unfold naturally in the course of the film, and that any conversations are spontaneous and undirected. In working with flood eyewitnesses and victims in Snow River, exactly one year after the May 2012 flood event, I moved away from one aspect of my usual approach, for instead of remaining in an “observational” point of view, I choose to shoot informal interviews with villagers in and around Kharapani. I felt this was a
situation in which an extended direct address to the camera was an ethical imperative, and that Snow River could still retain some qualities that I find valuable in verité filmmaking. In my editing, rather than extensively edit or chop up these interviews, I will allow the film subjects to ramble, as revelations are often found in unexpected turns of phrase or gestures.
Still from Snow River, Phul Maya Tamang informal interview Post-‐Production I am currently working in the post-‐production phase of the film, editing and subtitling footage. I am also assessing what I have shot to see what else I might need to shoot to give my film subjects, particularly those in the village, greater depth of being on the screen. The film will likely begin with footage taken in the upper Seti River basin and include the GoPro footage that I shot, which at times looks like animated satellite imagery. This footage will allow for a distanced tone and approach, perhaps even seemingly “objective,” which is reflective of the general attitude of the geomorphologists and engineers who study these regions. The film will transition to a focus on the individuals living in and around Kharapani as they seek to piece together a living day by day, along the banks of the river that has irrevocably altered the course of their lives forever. While I had a small inkling of the pain that an event such as the May 5, 2012 flood might cause, it was only through direct engagement with these people, which entailed my own vulnerability and dependence upon their goodwill, that I came to experience a small fraction of their pain and fear. I hope that the final edited piece will enable their stories to be heard and their daily life struggles to be seen alongside the immense challenges of what it means to implement effective risk response and development solutions in places such as Nepal. I believe that in spite
of the specificity of the event and my film subjects’ particular woes and experiences, that the disaster and the stories of its survivors speak to the fragility of human life more broadly, which is heightened among vulnerable populations in countries such as Nepal. This is what will continue to guide me as I edit.
Published on Sep 25, 2013
Snow River is a film project that employs ethnographic research and an attention to details to convey the impact of natural disasters on ind...