A goddess in his own right, Judge William Lee demands a sacrifice.
"Since I was a baby, I always wanted to be a goddess."
Nepal: A Himalayan kingdom at the top of the world—home to Mount Everest and 30 million gods.
Facts of the Case
Sajani is an eight-year-old girl living with her parents, two sisters and a brother in Bhaktapur (one of the three major cities in the Kathmandu Valley). She is also possessed by the goddess Taleju (a form of Kali, the Hindu goddess of creation and destruction). Sajani is the youngest of the living goddesses—identified by priests who administer this ancient tradition—young, virgin girls who are living objects of worship. The documentary Living Goddess profiles three such girls during recent turbulent times in their country. After a decade of civil conflict between Nepal's king and Communist Party supporters (Maoists), rebels effectively blockade the Kathmandu Valley, the country's cultural and political hub. When police, the king's army and pro-democracy protesters face off in the city streets, ordinary citizens are caught-up in the violent riots. In the face of social upheaval, what place is there for these girls who symbolize a past era?
Director Ishbel Whitaker and producer-cinematographer Marc Hawker (both were producers on Rize) present an engaging look at a dying tradition in a country on the verge of civil war. This side of Nepal is quite a distance from the harsh beauty of its signature mountain ranges, but even on the crowded city streets there is an undeniably exotic atmosphere. Yet, despite the rich material to be explored in this foreign land, the film never finds a compelling narrative rhythm. It's a minefield of cultural information without a clear road map.
Bucking the trend of documentary filmmakers placing themselves at center stage, Whitaker remains decidedly off-screen in this movie. The camera is a silent observer to events and this puts the onus on the viewer to make sense of what is happening. However, the result is not entire successful. What we see on screen does not have enough narrative momentum of its own to maintain our attention. Interview subjects appear to answer questions for no one in particular. Background details about religious life in Nepal are presented as dull exposition. The nation's political situation is overheard on television news reports. There is a lot of unfamiliar cultural terrain and viewers are left without a guide.
The documentary opens with a mystical swirl of bright colors on a black background. The text that fades in and out over this image summarizes the history of Nepal in two minutes. Unfortunately, this introductory sequence left me feeling unprepared to dive into contemporary Nepal's social and political problems. While the sequence of bold, trailing colors is visually pleasing, it doesn't contain much communicative power. During these crucial opening moments, visuals establishing the place or identifying the key players in the power struggle would have been more useful.
The filmmakers' camera is allowed a remarkable degree of access. The most revealing moments are the glimpses of the domestic lives of the goddesses. Sajani, like most little girls, is happiest playing with dolls and tea sets. However, during the day she is dressed up in elaborate makeup and fancy costumes so she can become a goddess. Whether it's in a room of the house or out in the public square, people are constantly clamoring to touch her or give her a gift. Her parents essentially play the roles of stage parents, managing her bookings as it were. Of course, it is in their mutual interest that their daughter plays her role properly. In one of the more troubling moments, Sajani attends an annual celebration where the devout offer the goddess alcohol. Though she is showing signs of illness from the endless requests to accept drink, the girl is nevertheless urged to continue sipping the offerings lest she fail to live up to her role.
Hawker's camera also looks unflinchingly at the practice of animal sacrifice in this very traditional culture. For viewers uneasy with scenes of ritualistic animal slaughter, there are many shots that will cause them to look away. Each instance is mercifully swift, but there is plenty of footage that is bloodier than the slaughter scene in Apocalypse Now.
The movie's suggestive direction prompts more questions than it provides answers for. Consider the statement in the opening sequence that Nepal is home to "30 million gods." Assuming the number is a reference to the country's population (28.6 million in 2005), does this imply that everyone in the nation has had a turn as a living deity? At one moment, we're told that goddesses are selected based on "32 perfections" and text appears on screen to list these criteria. Yet, the list is abandoned after less than a dozen qualifications are mentioned.
The trailer and the tagline for Living Goddess says it is about "3 girls worshipped as gods." Sajani is given a good introduction, but the other two subjects of the documentary are so casually presented that most of the time I wasn't aware that the camera was following a different girl. If there are in fact three goddesses in this film, their screen time is so skewed only one even registers in my memory. Racking my brain a bit, I do recall one girl who looked considerably older than Sajani. She may have been Dharma (I learn from the Official Site that she is in her 50s but is still considered a living goddess, which is a rare case) who always looked a little sad, but I don't remember the specific details of her story.
The picture on this DVD looks quite good with no noticeable defects in the image. It originated on video and still has that crisp video look to it. Contrast range isn't very deep but image detail is acceptable. The adequate audio track is available in stereo or surround. Permanent English subtitles translate the Nepali dialogue. The packaging lists the running time as 87 minutes, but another two minutes should be added to account for the end credits.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Among the very good footage that Hawker captures are amazing scenes of the street confrontations between armed security forces and pro-democracy protesters. His camera is deep in the middle of the action and more than a few times it looks as though the cameraman is about to be clobbered. These scenes really are historical documents as this round of civil disruption led to the end of the monarchy and the establishment of Nepal as a democratic republic.
The world of these young goddesses and the violent conflicts on the city streets do not mix well in this documentary. It feels like two separate movies, despite the fact that these events are really taking place in the same general vicinity at the same point in time. There is a lot of information but it's not put together in a very compelling manner. Rather than insisting on the fly-on-the-wall perspective, this story might have benefitted from a hint of the filmmakers' attitude as a reference point for the events witnessed.
For leaving us a little lost in a foreign land, we find the defendants guilty. They can make things right with a sacrifice of 26 cows and 18 chickens, or their equivalent in supplemental materials in their future efforts.
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