Visual voice for stateless from happy country

Doria Bramante (Producer/Director)
Doria Bramante (Producer/Director)
Markus Weinfurter (Producer/ Director)
Markus Weinfurter (Producer/ Director)

Doria Bramante is a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is an award winning theatre artist as well as a published writer and photographer. Her work with the Bhutanese Community has been published by International Organization for Migration. She serves as a board member for the Non-for-profit, International Campaign for Human Rights in Bhutan and has been an active supporter of the Bhutanese Community in America since 2008.

Markus Weinfurter studied Political and Social Sciences at the Johann-Wolfgang von Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. He focused on international and foreign politics and hermeneutics. He directed and edited documentaries on internationally traveling theatre groups and works as an independent theatre artist and performer.

Together, Doria and Markus have produced documentary on Bhutanese exiles titled ‘The Refugees of Shangri-La. Here is the excepts from an emailed interview they have given to Bhutan News Network.

When was your first encounter with Bhutanese in exile?

Still from the documentary

The first time I met the Bhutanese exiles was in Beldangi I Refugee Camp. I traveled there in August of 2008 to make this documentary film. It was not only my first encounter with the Bhutanese refugees, but it was also my first experience with the monsoons. I was shocked by the amount of rain and the conditions in which so many people had been living for so many years: bamboo huts with a tarp over the top to keep out as much water as possible. It was unbelievable. But, the thing that surprised me the most was the bright spirit of the Bhutanese people. I knew that the refugees had come from what people call the “Kingdom of Happiness,” but it was only in the camp that I truly saw how special the Bhutanese were. Even amidst unfathomable living conditions, I saw smiles and greetings of oneness on everyone’s face. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, this is what they mean when they say circumstances have very little to do with human happiness.” This was my first encounter. But on our first day, while in a meeting with IOM and UNHCR, we learned, during small talk, that a large number of Bhutanese refugees were resettling to my home state, New Hampshire. Therefore, we chose to follow some of those families on their way to resettlement in America. Five years later, the Bhutanese, former refugees, have become some of our dearest friends and we are honoured to be sharing their story with the world.

Why did you choose ‘refugees’ instead of ‘gross national happiness’ to make a movie?

When I was invited to make the film I hadn’t even heard of Bhutan! I knew nothing about Gross National Happiness nor the fact that one sixth of Bhutan’s population had been living in refugee camps in Nepal for the previous 18 years. I was shocked when I learned that a Buddhist nation that champions such lofty ideals could be capable of causing so much heartbreak to over one hundred thousand people. It is a stunning contradiction, which is why the film is titled “The Refugees of Shangri-La.”

What message are you trying to deliver through this movie?

Still from the documentary. Old lady descends from plane.

We are striving to give a voice to the Bhutanese refugee community at large and share their untold story with the world. The film presents their saga primarily through the voice of the refugees. It includes Bhutanese artwork and music, as well. The film gives a detailed revisit to the history of the Lhotsampa in Bhutan and explores the cause behind the eviction. We want the movie to serve future generations of Bhutanese so that they can know the courage of their ancestors and the history of their community. The Bhutanese are landing by the thousands on our doorsteps here in America and several other countries. Many people in the host communities do not have an understanding of where these people come from or what they have been through. We want to introduce the host communities to their new neighbors as well as share the film with communities in Asia who perhaps have a skewed view of the refugee crisis. Who knows? Maybe one day we will get to share the film with the Bhutanese government.

Based on your research, what do you find the reason behind eviction from Bhutan?

Based on our research there is not one clear answer. It seems that the ethnic Nepali were brought to Bhutan to cultivate the land and protect the southern borders from the expanding British Empire. They ended up building Bhutan into the country it is today. They were thriving in the south, both economically and intellectually, and the population was increasing dramatically. We are aware of the issue of population that arose when Bhutan joined the UN. We also know that there was a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Ghandi before the repressions started in the 80’s, which might have been a reason for the course Bhutan took from then on. But, we do not cover these issues in the film. What we do surmise is that since Buddhist kingdoms were being annexed in the region (Tibet and Sikkim) by China and India, the Bhutanese ruling clan must have felt the growing Lhotsampa as a threat to their power, as they were moving towards democratic reforms. Once the building projects were finished it seems it was easier to implement all these repressive laws that were an attempt to integrate and finally separate and depopulate the southern Bhutanese.

Do you believe the ‘refugees’ got justice from the international community? Why?

We cannot say whether or not the refugees have been given justice. Watching the Bhutanese in diaspora, we have witnessed both loss and gain. We feel at least now there is an opportunity for the community to build a life, exercise one’s potential, and build a future for the youth, better than the one they would have had in the refugee camp and, perhaps, even as a Lhotsampa still living in Bhutan. In an ideal world, and, perhaps, in the near future, there would be a dialogue that would create a solution that no one has thought of yet; one that would include both diversity and the preservation of the various cultural identities of different groups in Bhutan; one that would include the desire to right the wrongs of the past and the will for happiness of “the forgotten people” of Bhutan. We hope that the film will create a wellspring of awareness that will demand a conversation like this. We would like to work with Bhutanese communities throughout the world to create such a ground swell of awareness so please contact us about hosting events and screenings in your states through the website

What response did you get from the ‘refugees’, those advocating GNH in US, INGOs and US government officials (including the premier on November 4)?

Still from the documentary. A young child gets ready to board plane.

The reaction to the film has been great at every screening,especially from the Bhutanese “refugee” communities and people who have direct relationships with the refugees. People have been moved, shocked, saddened, inspired. One “refugee” who had been tortured for 18 months in prison stood up after the film with tears in his eyes and told us that everything was true and that the whole world needed to see the film.

That was so encouraging and we hope that other “refugees” feel the same way! As far as the other communities, since the film is still new, we have not shared it with that many people yet.

Did you get any reaction from Bhutan?

We have not yet heard from Bhutan. We contacted the Bhutanese embassy several times to request an interview but we were rejected every time. We hope to hear from Bhutan, so we can share the film with the people in Bhutan.

One thought on “Visual voice for stateless from happy country

  • January 11, 2014 at 12:14 am

    Thank you for sharing.


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