‘A dream does not become reality through magic. It need sweat, determination and hard work.’
Such is an inspirational story of Stanzin Dorjai Gya who is an award winning Indian Documentary film maker from Ladakh. Stanzin has made India proud at many international film festivals and has received most number of awards for his various documentary films. He was born to a semi nomadic family in the village called GYA which is 70 km from Leh, Ladakh. His family owns yaks and sheep and he had also gazed the animals before he became a film maker. He had studied at the Government School, Leh and graduated in Arts from Jammu University.
These are some of the path breaking films that Stanzin along with his co-director Christiane Mordelete has made and have got commercial as well as critical acclaim all over the world.
• Behind the Mirror
• Living With Change
• Jungwa – The Broken Balance
• Shepherdess of the Glaciers
We visited his village Gya which is like a heaven in between the mountains of Ladakh and takes us back in time. We speak to Stanzin, a hidden gem from Leh who has made India proud in many international platforms.
Hello Stanzin! First of all congratulations for becoming the face of Woodland Shoes in India. We saw the Woodland Shoes advertisement with you as front face in almost all national newspapers across India. How does it feel? Tell us how it happened to you?
Thank you very much! It really feels good to be a part of it. Friends from all over India are calling me after they see me in the advertisement. It was published in all national news papers. Last year when I was attending the IMF (Indian Mountaineering Foundation) award with our documentary film Shepherdess of the Glaciers, the team of Woodland shoes were also there. That is when I met them. Then last month I was informed that I got selected as the face of Woodland shoes. It was surprising. I was called to Delhi for the shoot.
You live in such a beautiful place and are so much attached to this place even after you have gained so much popularity. Don’t you ever think of moving away for better carrier options?
To be frank I really miss my home and village when I am out of India. I feel very satisfied coming back here. I am very rooted to my place. I still have lots of opportunity to settle in other countries. But I do not want to go. It is not that I want to become a shepherd here but I want to connect to the people of Leh through my films. We do not have many TV here, there is no proper internet service and irregular electric supply. Film making is not considered a profession here but we all still take our little steps to do whatever we can do for the place we are rooted to.
That sounds like it is really hard to live here.
Gya is the oldest village of Ladakh. It is at approximately 5000Ft. It looks beautiful from outside but it is really very hard to live here. Because of the altitude the air is really thin here. Somehow people are living here facing all these challenges. While we were making ‘Shepherdess of Glacier’, we really had to face a lot of challenges. We had shot at -36 degree. In this much cold even the batteries do not work. Even charging the batteries was a big issue.
Recently in 2014 there was a flash flood in your village? What was the reason behind it?
Yes it was a big flash flood which caused a lot of damage to my village in 2014. Luckily no one lost their life as it made a huge noise before hitting our village. So every one went uphill hearing the noise. In the last 35 years the climate has really changed and has increased the temperature of Leh by 1 degree. In 2010 also Leh was hit by an enormous flash flood. Many people died also in it. Glaciers are melting fast. 50% of the ice cover has vanished in Leh. Climate change and Global warming is for real.
You made a documentary film on it called Jungwa – The Broken Balance, which was also shown at the United Nation’s COP 21 Paris Conference in 2015. Tell us about the journey of the film and how you made it?
‘Jungwa’ in Ladakhi means how the 4 elements – Air, Fare, Water and Earth are now imbalanced. It is based on the flash flood of 2010 in Leh. I thought that I should capture it in my camera otherwise people will forget about it in few years. It was very difficult because I was not helping people during the flash flood but filming instead. People use to think that I am a photographer and taking photos and having fun instead of helping people. It was emotionally very challenging. I saw children and family dead and buried inside the mug. A lot of people got angry on me because I was filming it. But I thought if I sit today there will be nothing tomorrow. I put a big stone on my heart and kept shooting. That is what as a film maker you have to understand sometimes. You cannot make everyone happy. Today so many schools and colleges in Leh, India and in many foreign courtiers show my film to the students and they love it and say its one of the most beautiful movies they have seen.
Then in 2015, Jungwa was selected amongst other 100 films from all over the world to be screened at the United Nation’s COP 21 Paris Conference on climate change. I was feeling so proud that I was representing India through my film. All the hard work behind it paid off so well.
You are also an expert in sighting and filming Snow Leopards which are the most rare and beautiful wild animals on this earth. How do you usually shoot them in these harsh and inaccessible locations? How hard is it to shoot them?
I was a shepherd before I became a film maker. I use to live at 5000 ft with the sheeps alone for many days. During my time in the mountains at high altitude I frequently use to sight Snow leopards and wolves. They were my only friends in the mountains. I had no human friend there. So I knew where leopards use to live and where they use to hunt. I knew about mountains like no one did. Then later in life I got the opportunity from WWF and Wildlife Department, Leh to make a film on Snow leopards. As I was one of the film maker in Leh that time they contacted me. That time I did not had any advance equipment. Just one Sony PD170 camera and a tri pot but still I managed to capture very good footages of the snow leopard. Today I have advance cameras and better equipment but it has become more difficult today to spot a snow leopard. Some time it takes weeks and sometime a month to spot it. You have to be really patience and a responsible film maker. It is important that you do not bother these animals a lot and respect them in their natural habitat.
And your sister who is so close to you is also a shepherd and encounters Snow leopards on the daily basis? You made a film on her too with your Co-Director Christiane Mordelete called ‘Shepherdess of the Glaciers.’ Tell us about it.
Shepherdess of Glacier is the most awarded documentary film from India in all over the world. It is really famous in foreign countries and they really like it. My sister is one of the few shepherds left in our village as the young generation does not want to do this job. She goes to the high altitudes mountains of Leh Ladakh alone with the live stock and live for days there with them. She has no company except her radio which she consider as her only friend in the mountain. She lives in such a harsh and cold place so easily where even trained mountaineers need years of training to climb and live.
It took us 3 years to complete the film. One hour of footage took 4 days to shoot. Sometimes it even took a month to shoot one hour of footage. We shot total of 80 hours of footages out of which we made the whole film. Sometimes it is important to be original and not copy. We are so happy that we made this film. We have shown only reality in it. While shooting, we got so many beautiful shots of the animals like an eagle flying and picking one of the sheep. But we have emphasised on showing the main character that is my sister and her hardship in the mountains while roaming with the livestock.
How does the audience react to the film?
It has a totally different audience. They do not react like a feature film! Some like it and some don’t. It is more success in cities. For villagers it is a normal film. In Europe lot of Tv channels bought our movie. It won awards at all the film festival.
How does it feel now? The rewards you are getting after a long and roller coaster film making journey of yours?
We feel happy. There is so much still to do. I feel one life is not enough. Every day I am learning so many things. Meeting so many like minded people through our movies whom we would have not met otherwise. We feel lucky. But documentary has very little scope in India. So we are shooting for European market now. We are right now shooting a documentary film on Mongolia about their rich culture and a beautiful relation between a father and his daughter who are the protagonist of my documentary films.
But there are the dark sides to it also. I lost my mother when I and Christiane were in Mongolia shooting our film. There was no network that time where we were shooting. When we came back after few days I came to know about the sad demise of the mother. I was devastated. I still regret that I was not there with her. It was really hard for me to accept that my mother is no more. But now I understand that this is life. She gives me strength every single day.
Any advice you want to give to young film makers?
I think film making is one of the most important tools if you want to bring any change in the society. Don’t have any inhibitions about this field. Films can change lives and society. Life as a film maker is a little challenging but it is a very satisfying life. We will all die one day but our films will be there for thousand years. So keep making good movies!
Award money from the movies made by Stanzin and Christian is used to develop his village GYA in Leh and help the shepherds of the region.
Piyush Pande Films