Snow Land is not a magical country, surrounded by crystalline glaciers. Snow Land is a school in Kathmandu, Nepal’s Capital City, run by a Buddhist monk with private donations and on a mission to give the opportunity of education, hence a better life, to children from the high lands of the Himalaya, remote villages where there are neither schools nor any kind of easy communication with the rest of the world and where poverty prevents many families from looking after properly to their children.
“Children of the Snow Land” starts almost as a fairy tale, to then become an adventurous voyage and to conclude as an inspiring coming of age tale.
Snow Land School welcomes children when they are 4 or 5 – the age of primary school – feed them, educate them and keep them until graduation. If this sounds like an average British boarding school, think again. The children in fact live separated by their parents for all this time; a parent or a relative carry them on their back on a long and exhausting journey and once they kiss the little ones goodbye, they will not seen them again for many many years, maybe never again. It is an unthinkable sacrifice they do in hope their sons and daughters will be able to study and get a good job in the city, far from the rural villages that cannot offer a sustainable way of life.
Snow Land creates a loving surrogate family for the children, it is for them much more than a school, and happiness is palpable there, but it comes a time where the teenagers start to wonder if their estranged real families still love them and desire to see them again. But here the magic starts. Near graduation time, the 16 and 17 year-old students are sent for 3 months to visit and reconnect with their family and their native cultural heritage and they will face a journey full of expectations and fears.
The directors of the documentary have given GoPros and video equipment to 3 students out of the lucky bunch to allow them to document their trip and give us an insight through their very eyes. Here they are. 17 years old Nima is from the ‘Upper Dolpo’ region, the highest inhabited place on earth; his mum died shortly after giving birth and he was cared for by his father who Nima loves dearly and hasn’t seen since he was 6. Tsering is a chirpy beautiful girl, arrived at Snow Land School at only 4 from the far North West of the Himalayas, she is 16 at the time of filming, full of unresolved questions and yearning for some quality time with her mum. Lastly, Jeewan is the son of farmers and is the more tech-savvy of the three; he worries a lot about being stuck three months with no way of communicate.
We see them packing, excited and euphoric; the journey home is long and challenging. They must endure a 15-hour ride by coach, then jump on a little airplane (it’s their first flight!) and then start a long trekking through the mountains to reach their villages. It’s “only” 4 or 5 days for Jeewan and Tsering but an incredible 15-day trekking in very extreme conditions for Nima. And as if it wasn’t taxing enough, on their way home a massive earthquake (it’s 2015) strikes Nepal leaving the children shaken by its echoes and frightened for their friends back at school in Katmandu.
The documentary seamlessly merges the children’s footage with the more professional one, creating the illusion of a very intimate experience following the three protagonists. Their tenacity, the increasing anxiety and excitement on reaching their families and the newly found maturity after the reconciliating experience is an incredible insight into the hearts of these young adults, freed from superfluous superstructures. It is an incredible story, inspiring and moving, one that makes us re-think what we ordinarily give for granted.
The human factor and the three kids’ empathy in this film are so overwhelming that you might almost forget to notice the beauty of the landscape in front of you. Nima contributed to some of the most breath-taking nature shots in the highest part of Himalaya. His trip triggered a passion for photography and he is now studying cinema at a prestigious college in Katmandu, helped by the Snow Land Charity.
Directed & Produced by Zara Balfour & Marcus Stephenson, “Children of the Snow Land” is a project before being a documentary. There are other schools like Snow Land, 25 only in Katmandu and many more in lots of other countries where education is a privilege. The aims of the project is to provide direct, practical support to reconnect children like Nima, Tsering and Jeewan with their families and mentoring for the students after graduating from Snow Land School and possibly also help the development of the High Himalayan villages to create an environment where children can study without leaving the families behind.
It is a beautiful project and a beautiful film.
Please visit Children of the Snow Land Project Website to find out more about the project and the ways to help.