Video: Hampshire College filmmaker Emily Packer explores lives of ‘nationless’ Tibetans

Last modified: Wednesday, November 20, 2013

AMHERST — Traveling Nepal early last year, Emily Packer passed as another Western tourist. But when she took out her camera, it wasn’t to capture vistas on the roof of the world.

She wanted to document a people exiled from one country and sidelined in another.

Using a California friend’s family contacts, Packer worked her way into the Tibetan community in Nepal and conducted interviews for a film, “Nationless,” that debuts this week with screenings in Amherst Saturday and Monday.

It is the first documentary film by Packer, a second-year student at Hampshire College.

In Nepal, Packer, 20, listened as Tibetans living there more than 60 years after China’s occupation of their homeland described political obstacles they face. One interview subject, a man identified as Georgie, told Packer of his attempts to protest both the occupation and his lack of legal recognition and rights in Nepal. “He just sort of mentioned the time he spent in jail … and how he and his friends, who are politically active, are targeted by police.”

“I wanted this story to get out,” Packer said in an interview last week. “I’m hoping that it at least provides a bit of a bigger picture of where Tibetans are going … and awareness of what I see as the injustices being done to Tibetans living in Nepal.”

Abraham Ravett, a professor of film and photography at Hampshire, said he has seen a rough cut of Packer’s documentary. He praised her for undertaking a complex story and pushing it past barriers, including language, access and politics.

“She managed to do it in her own way,” Ravett said of Packer, who serves as a teaching assistant in one of his classes. “It’s rare for someone in their second year to achieve something of this scope. It’s quite an achievement.”

Crowd’s support

Last week, Packer was making final edits to “Nationless,” which she funded in part through a successful $4,950 Kickstarter campaign. She served as director, cinematographer, photographer and editor, with other footage shot by André Baumgart, photography by Sergio Gonzalez Mar and a score by Jordan Halpern.

It is her first solo project, building on experience she gained interning with Mission Pictures and making short promotional documentaries in Latin America for nonprofits. In Ecuador she worked with an organic farm and land rehabilitation project. In Peru, she aided a volunteer group that teaches yoga and English to local children.

This week’s 43-minute screenings are aided by local groups concerned about the plight of the Tibetan people. Saturday’s showing at Hampshire College is hosted by Students for Human Rights. Monday’s screening at the University of Massachusetts is sponsored by Students for Free Tibet.

Packer will take questions from audiences after both events.

The director was just out of high school in the San Francisco area when she decided to pursue this story as a documentary film. She says a friend in California, Sonam Tsering, had spoken of the problems his parents and relatives face living in Nepal without the same legal rights as the Nepalese.

Once in Nepal, she found people hesitant to share views, wary of being exposed. Packer believes they might also have been disillusioned after decades of protesting without result.

Tsering helped her gain contacts. “I can completely understand why that community might be distrustful of the media,” she said.

Packer’s travels took her to the Kodari border, where a narrow bridge over a river links Nepal with what had been Tibet, but is now controlled by China, which long claimed the territory and succeeded in retaking it in 1959.

Packer said she stepped onto the bridge and approached the Chinese side. She wanted to show this portal to the land to which refugees long to return.

But she was stopped and told to put her camera away. She managed to get footage of the bridge while back on the Nepal side, training her Canon Vixia HF S200 on the scene.

When asked about their politically circumscribed lives in Nepal, and their connection to their homeland, many in “Nationless” speak with passion. Packer said the depth of their ties to a place they’ve never been struck her. “They still think of it as their homeland and they are waiting to be back.”

Packer has attended a rally locally in support of the Tibetan people, but conducted no interviews in the Valley.

Still, she has a committed ally in Thondup Tsering, a native of western Tibet whose family owns the Lhasa Cafe in Northampton. He said conditions for Tibetans in Nepal have grown worse, after a change in the Nepalese government. “Since then, Nepal has become much more under the influence of the Chinese. Nepal has taken a very, very tough stand on Tibetan refugees.”

In defiance of U.N. policy, Nepal has returned Tibetans who come across the border to Chinese authorities, rather than sheltering them, Tsering said.

Policy now bars Tibetans in Nepal from engaging in peaceful protests. They cannot celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birth anniversary or publicly recognize March 10 — when Tibetans mark the day in 1959 their capital fell to the Chinese after a 10-year campaign. “Tibetans don’t have the right to assemble and the right to freely speak about their aspirations.”

Tsering said he is impressed and moved by Packer’s quest to shed light on a human rights problem close to his heart. “We look to them, hoping that they will speak up and come to our assistance,” he said of Packer and others from the world community. “Who are not afraid to speak on behalf of people who are oppressed.”

Tsering, 54, was an infant when his parents fled Tibet. “One of my dreams is to touch the soil and feel the air and drink the water of my homeland,” he said.

While the film explores the possibility of freeing Tibet from Chinese control, Packer said she believes it is more practical to focus on winning improved rights for Tibetans who live in Nepal, which has housed many Tibetan refugees for half a century, as has India.

But the welcome Nepal once extended refugees has grown cold, Packer notes. In 1989, the government of Nepal stopped granting refugee status to people of Tibetan descent. Packer says she believes the shift is driven by Nepal’s economic dependence on China.

After the local showings, Packer plans to enter “Nationless” in film festivals. She is hopeful the documentary will be shown in Nepal and is working with an arts group there that has sponsored political films.

As she wrapped up work on the film, Packer said her goal is to share understanding of the problem of stateless people.

“The biggest lens I see through is to provide truth in filmmaking. Even in documentary film that can get diluted,” she said. “I take other people’s stories and try to be as true to them as possible.”

“Nationless” will screen at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Main Lecture Hall of Franklin Patterson Hall at Hampshire College and at 6 p.m. Monday in Campus Center Room 904 at UMass.


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