The premise of No Winter Holidays, the directorial debut of directors Rajan Kathet and Sunir Pandey, is one that transfixes. Set in the shivering high altitudes of the Nepalese Himalayas in the Dhor valley, the 79 minutes-long documentary, which marked its premiere at the Sheffield DocFest, tells us at the outset that the entire village has migrated to the South at the onset of Winter in October, except for two women- Ratima and Kalima. They are widows of the same man. With this knowledge, Kathet and Pandey painstakingly follow the women and document their very unusual rivalry and routine existence day in, day out. (Also read: Tish review: A rousing and intimate portrait of British photographer Tish Murtha)
Originally titled Dhorpatan, this is a film that immediately transports us to the middle of nowhere. Wherever you see–and Babin Dulal’s camerawork is acutely interested in that perspective of quiet watchfulness–there are mountains and barren land devoid of vegetation and inhabitants. Where the cold is so severe and unforgiving that one can even die if the fire is not lit for one evening. The setting does take its own time to build up to that swing of isolation, as each of the women go about their day in mundane chores. The camera simply follows them with a watchful eye. Both of these women survive by themselves, sharing an animosity with one another which is perhaps that only fire that keeps them alive.
Yet, with all the best efforts in negotiating a space within their daily lifestyles, No Winter Holidays never really digs in to uncover the voices of these women. There are no questions asked. Given these women are rather focused and pragmatic about their daily chores, the conversations never really allows for a deep dive into their inner lives. There’s an awkward distance between the subject and the camera, which builds up to a certain degree of chilly reserve. Who are these women really; what are their histories and realities, fears and anxieties, questions and resolutions? Apart from tracing back to that one man, where do these women find their voice? These are some of the questions that No Winter Holidays curiously avoids. Instead it willingly waits on its viewers to process the isolation and rhythm of an extraordinary lifestyle in all its wide-eyed, visually stunning brushstrokes.
When the women finally find themselves in the vicinity of other people from their community, only then does the film attain a sort of context in terms of their choices and ownership. Yet, these scenes arrive quite late into the film, which doesn’t really help in erasing the many questions that have been abandoned in the process. Purposefully inert? Suggest so. Yet, No Winter Holidays (the more I willingly try to look past the pointlessly suggestive title the more I fail) is somehow stuck in locating its own subjects- this is a film which is interested only in acknowledging the stubbornness of a lifestyle, unable to brush off that blanket of shielded psychological spark that could have ignited this documentary with much needed warmth and immediacy.
A work like No Winter Holidays affirms the need for authentic experiences to be documented with not just style and technique, but most definitely with a firm hold of its own distinct voice. Let Ratima and Kalima’s experiences be wildly contrasting- it matters as much as anyone else in this world trying to find their own reasons to survive. But to stop there is not the point. There is power in denial, in the rock-solid abstinence to move past mistakes and look forward- but is No Winter Holidays willing to have that conversation? That is the question that must have headlined the proceedings instead. This is a work that leaves the viewer in a state of promise, wonder and subsequent frustration, a combination that does not necessarily feel welcoming.
(Santanu Das is covering Sheffield Doc Fest for Hindustan Times as part of the accredited press.)