Behind the Scenes: “DURGA: Forging a New Trail”

Words By: Emily Hopcian

Photos By: Kopal Goyal

In Hinduism, Durga is a goddess of war, whose mythology centers around combating evils and demonic forces that threaten peace, prosperity and the power of good over evil. She is a fierce form of the protective mother goddess, who unleashes her divine wrath against the wicked for the liberation of the oppressed.

Durga Rawal embodies the meaning of her name, as she forges a new trail for herself, and other girls and women, as a guide throughout Nepal. DURGA: Forging a New Trail, a short documentary film, explores Durga’s story.

In a country where boys receive an education, men seek employment in larger cities and girls and women are often left to work on family farms and within their homes, Durga’s is a story of defying cultural, societal and familial expectations to pursue an independent life. It is a story of female empowerment and gender equality about a brave young woman who is forging her own trail.

The film, made possible in part by support from Arc’teryx, explores and celebrates bold dreams and the unwavering strength it takes to overcome doubt, discrimination and harassment to break free from the narratives that are put before us and intentionally reach for a life that is uniquely ours.

In October and November 2019, our crew from Argentina, India, Nepal and the U.S. came together in Nepal to film with Durga, her family, friends and community. Now, as we prepare to premiere the film at No Man’s Land Film Festival from March 4-7, we’re giving a behind-the-scenes look at the inspiration and process of making and sharing DURGA: Forging a New Trail.

Introduce yourself. Where are you from, what do you do and what is your role in the making of DURGA?

EH: I’m Emily Hopcian. I’m a Michigander who’s called Bariloche, Argentina home for the past four years. I’m a writer, editor and content producer with a focus on character-driven stories of outdoor adventure and social and environmental impact. I’m passionate about telling truly local stories that carry universal themes to inspire global understanding and connection. I’m directing and producing DURGA alongside a talented, passionate and creative crew of individuals.

DR: My name is Durga Rawal. I am 36 years old, and I was born in Bham Bada, a village in Nepal’s Mugu District. I live in Pokhara. I am a trekking guide. Right now, I am living in Bham Bada because I haven’t had work this year [due to the coronavirus pandemic].

AS: My name is Alan Schwer. I’m a filmmaker from Bariloche, Argentina in Northern Patagonia. I’ve worked with Sweetgrass Productions, Discovery Channel, Mammut and on some independent projects that have a focus on the mountain culture in my hometown. I create audiovisual content for companies and NGOs with a particular focus on conservation. When Emily contacted me to work on DURGA, the story she wanted to tell caught my attention, so I joined the project as the cinematographer and editor.

KG: My name is Kopal Goyal, and I’m a rock climber and documentarian [Project Wild Women; Kokankada] based in India. I also founded Inspire Crew, a media agency and platform to empower all people in extreme and outdoor sports in India while keeping women at the forefront. One of my friends connected me with Emily, and I became a part of this wonderful project as the photographer. Through my work, I want to break the barriers that exist in our society and let this world know that, in any activity or profession, we shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of gender, age or social status.

How did you meet Durga Rawal? What was the inspiration to make this film?

EH: In 2015, through my work with One World Play Project and a partnership with Women Win, I was introduced to Empowering Women of Nepal, a nonprofit organization that trains and supports Nepalese women to become guides and work in tourism. The organization caught my interest for its connection to outdoor adventure as well as female empowerment and gender equality.

I felt there was a story with EWN worth exploring, telling and sharing and that such a story—woven with Nepal’s rich culture, striking landscapes and strong sense of adventure—would lend itself well to film. In considering the stories of the women EWN works with, I was struck by Durga Rawal’s story, particularly her sheer will and determination to leave her hometown, create her own opportunities and pursue a life, and career, far different from anyone in her family and community.

In 2017, through email, Facebook Messenger and video calls, Durga and I began talking to and getting to know one another and discussing how sharing her story on camera would look. Since we first connected, Durga and I have remained committed to one another and the different roles we play in making it possible to share her story in this way.

What were your initial thoughts about making this film? What excited or resonated with you?

DR: I was happy and excited to share my life story. I was, and still am, anxious to see how people respond—what they like, feel and say.

AS: What resonated with me most about the project was the theme and the place. Personally, having worked at film festivals stimulating the diffusion of mountain culture, being able to bring a project to life about the problems that are manifested in the same workplace captivated me immediately. Additionally, the challenge of telling a story about such a different culture alongside a diverse group of people was something that really caught my attention.

KG: Durga’s story completely resonates with what I am working toward and pushing for in India. Her story, like the others I am drawn to, encourages more women to come out of their comfort zones and participate in outdoor sports and activities. It gives them a voice to accept social challenges and rise. Playing a role in Durga’s story was a step forward with my vision.

What was your experience like creating this film in Nepal?

DR: Making this film was a different experience from my work. I enjoyed myself while filming this documentary. Some of it was hard work, but other times were enjoyable.

KG: Shooting in Nepal was full of incredible and true moments. It was amazing to visit the Mugu District, one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. I really enjoyed witnessing Durga and her family together and was amazed to see the lifestyle of the people there—how they live their lives, work and celebrate festivals.

What was challenging for you, or what challenged you?

EH: Making and sharing this film has been humbling and so challenging. I actually have a running document that highlights lessons learned throughout this journey. Time, budget and language were some of the biggest challenges for me. With more time and budget, I feel we would’ve walked away with a different story. The story we captured with Durga is strong and powerful and will resonate with audiences, yet I also know there are so many ways to tell the same story. In terms of language, we intentionally filmed all of our interviews, including Durga’s, in Nepali. While I stand by our reasons for doing so, I also realize it presented unique challenges during production. Through it all, collaborating with Durga, Alan, Kopal and so many others has been a gratifying experience. I feel the diversity of our crew—with regard to language, gender, nationality, culture, etc.—is also one of the biggest blessings and something that contributes to the strength of our film overall.

DR: It was challenging for me to speak confidently on camera. At times, as we were filming, it was challenging to listen and understand in English and then respond in Nepali. It wasn’t always easy to navigate both languages at once.

AS: Being a project that seeks to reflect social problems in mountain environments, in a culture so different from mine, it became a challenge to shape the story in an audiovisual format. It was a slow process in which we had to learn a lot about the customs of Nepal and how to communicate with each other, as a film crew, to advance the narrative. Structuring the story was also a great challenge and lesson, since it required working through three quite different cultures: my Argentine culture, Emily’s North American culture and the culture of Durga and the Nepalese people. It was also an immense challenge to convey the antagonistic forces on film—and not because they didn’t exist. They’re constantly present in Durga’s life, marked by Nepal’s strong patriarchal culture. However, it was difficult to personify that antagonistic presence during filming and, therefore, in the edit.

What was one of your favorite moments from production?

EH: So many moments stand out to me, but my absolute favorite was the day we spent at Rara Lake with Durga, her mom and sister. It was the first time all three women had been to the lake, which is relatively close to their village, together and the first time Durga’s mom and sister had accompanied her as she guided tourists. I fell in love with Durga’s mom, Lati, that day. She is strong beyond measure, humble and unapologetically herself. She is an understated force. The memory of her trekking to and from Rara Lake with us—especially after dark, down the side of a mountain, keeping up with such a young and active group—is not one I will soon forget. I developed a deep admiration and appreciation for her that day.

AS: The moments I enjoyed most were the ones where I was able to bond with the people. Many times, using a camera can produce a distance, if the people do not understand what is being filmed and why. However, being able to share the work with the people we met eliminated those barriers and generated strong moments of interaction.

Why do you feel it’s important to share stories of girls and women in the outdoors?

KG: Having worked on female-oriented projects and met with so many people, I think us women are already empowered; we just need role models in our lives. This is why Durga’s story matters and why it’s important to share stories of girls and women in the outdoors.

AS: Being able to show the life experiences of women in outdoor activities is one way to show the great fight against gender inequality. Historically, like many other areas of culture, the masculine presence was naturalized as a norm and a parameter for the construction of social trends. Today, I think the growing push of women to develop activities previously considered “masculine” is a great step to demand absent rights. However, I think there’s still a great commitment needed from the masculine side of society to denaturalize these practices. It’s a slow process, since it involves giving up a lot of the symbolic and real power that men acquired throughout history.

What do we stand to gain by sharing truly local stories from around the world?

EH: I feel there are so many stories centered on North Americans and Europeans, and their experiences, in foreign spaces. This seems especially true in the outdoor and adventure travel industries. I feel we need more truly local stories to inspire global understanding and connection, to unite our global community. By telling and sharing truly local stories, we can recognize and celebrate the ways in which we are the same and also different.

KG: Sharing truly local stories makes people realize: if another person has done it, why can’t I? We come from the same place; we speak one language. It brings a sense of affinity and unity.

What do you hope people who watch this film will take away from Durga’s story?

AS: I hope people who enjoy this film will have a great moment of reflection. We are communicating a complex story about a disadvantaged reality—obstructed by familial, societal and economic conflicts—to an audience likely to have great access to education, online communication, travel, mountain activities, etc. This story is the absence of all of that. It’s the constant push of a woman to move forward with a very adverse life. I think witnessing this fight makes us learn to value what life has given us and understand that there are millions of people that don’t have the means we’re so fortunate to enjoy. If this experience is strong enough, it will be a grain of sand that encourages us to work to improve our reality as a global community.

KG: That if you really wish to do something, dare to go after it and accept the challenges.

EH: Durga’s story is one of pursuing her dreams and stepping into a life that is uniquely hers—in spite of the narratives set forth by her family and community and Nepal’s society and culture. It is my hope that people who experience this film, especially girls and women in Nepal and around the world, will resonate with Durga’s story and feel inspired and encouraged to explore, chase and live into their dreams. I also hope people will see that their choices—such as intentionally traveling with a local, female guide—carry power to positively evolve industries, communities and individual lives.

Arc’teryx is proud to be one of the sponsors in the making of DURGA: Forging a New Trail. The Film will premiere at the 2021 No Man’s Land Virtual Flagship Festival from March 4-7. Due to the pandemic, this year’s event is virtual, meaning we can all enjoy it from the comfort of our homes. More info and tickets can be found here.