People have suddenly realized that there are so many things that they desire that they were not even aware of before. And the truth is that most of these television channels are commercially driven, and so the Bhutanese people are driven to consumerism. That’s inevitable. And that is, to some extent, unfortunate. But inevitable.
Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley, Bhutan’s Foreign Minister
Booger is here in Mexico City visiting me this week, but unfortunately neither of us are feeling 100%, which has meant lots of movies in the evening. Actually, it’s exactly what I’ve needed after weeks of stressful work and traveling. We started out on a Clint Eastwood kick, first with Invictus and then Gran Torino. Boogs very well might be the worst person in the world when it comes to making decisions so as she flipped through Netflix’s steadily growing selection of streaming movies last night I knew I would need to take over or else we’d spend the evening reading reviews.
We settled on the 2003 Travelers and Magicians, which, says Wikipedia, “is the first feature film shot entirely in Bhutan.” The protagonist of the film is Dondup, a young, chain-smoking government official who is obsessed with American culture … and leaving his country for the American dream.
Throughout the whole movie I was tripping out. God damn, homeboy looks just like my friend Tshewang. But I figured it couldn’t be. If Tshe had been in a major film production I would have known about it.
Tshe and Lisa, Camden, Maine, 2008
I loved the movie. It made me yearn to be back in the Himalaya, where I lived and studied for most of 1999. There is an authenticity to the movie that probably comes from the fact that the cast is made up of almost entirely non-professional actors. I highly recommend it to anyone who has Netflix Watch Instantly.
The movie finished, the credits rolled, and sure enough it really was Tshewang who I met while in Camden, Maine in 2008 as part of PopTech’s Social Innovation Fellows program. What else has Tshe been up to that I wasn’t aware of, I wondered.
Unrestrained Western culture was a force that the Bhutanese had long feared. Until 1999, television and the Internet were illegal in Bhutan. Royal decrees were intended to safeguard the country against what was feared to be an onslaught of Western values. Not until Bhutan could offer its own television service would Western digital media be welcomed into the Kingdom. So in June 1999, the country crossed the threshold of modernity on two fronts: television and the Internet were legalized, and the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) was born.
Alexis Bloom, Documentary Filmmaker
Tshewang became one of the first Bhutanese journalists to travel around the country with a camera and microphone and to appear on the only television channel, state-run Bhutan Broadcasting Service. But he lacked the technical production skills, and so he traveled about as far as possible, to Berkeley, California where he enrolled in the documentary film program at the Graduate School of Journalism. There he met a fellow foreign student, South African-born Alexis Bloom, and the two headed back to Bhutan in 2002 after their studies to produce “The Last Place“, a ten-minute piece for Frontline World that looks at the impact of satellite and cable TV on the country.
The quote from Bhutan’s Foreign Minister at the beginning of this blog post comes from the Frontline piece, but it could just as easily sum up “Travelers and Magicians” which Tshewang must have started working on immediately following his return to Bhutan from Berkeley.
“Expectations create anxiety,” quips the talkative yet endearing monk who follows Dondup on his hitchhiking tour to get to the United States. It is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Everyone reading this blog already has everything he and she needs in life. Yet our lives are still filled with anxiety. We need to make more money, launch more projects, see more places, have more to show for our lives.
“The Last Place” is a fascinating and well-produced piece, and a reminder of the strangeness (and evilness) of Western television programming. It underlines Clay Shirky’s assertion that far too many of us wasted the 80’s and 90’s watching terrible sitcoms.
From my own elitist ledge, I think that importing foreign television programming into Bhutan was a net bad. Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley says that the one positive effect of bringing television to Bhutan is that the Bhutanese began to realize just how peaceful their country is compared to most. But it also led to youthful fanatics of WWF and a quick transition from isolated Buddhism to capitalist consumerism.
But what about the internet? From my same elitist ledge can it be judged as a net good or net bad for the country? I have no idea. I’ve never been to Bhutan. But I am intrigued by the thoughts of Sonam Ongmo, Global Voices’ inspiring Bhutanese author. She was born and raised in Bhutan where she worked as a journalist and then moved to New York where she is now, in her own words, “a displaced stay-at-home mother of two.”
In 2006 – just six years after the internet first arrived to Bhutan and the same year as freedom of press was guaranteed – she published a piece in the Bhutan Times that speculated how the country would react to the network of networks. She recently re-published that piece on her blog.
In a country with limited resources like ours, individuals will have to play a more decisive role in managing Television and Internet but the State has to help them. The west as a long media history and the public are very familiar with how a free press functions and it impacts them. Their people have matured with it and so management of the media has come with a certain amount of education and exposure to it. While we often claim to be in a position to learn from other’s mistakes we have seen that it is only when the elephant is in the room that we are scrambling for solutions.
Nearly four years later and it seems that Sonam still doesn’t know how to weigh the positive and negative effects of the internet on Bhutan. Like most of us, she feels that there is simply not enough time to reflect on all the information that passes by us:
Bhutan has seen drastic changes within society – good and bad – but the fact that it is happening all very fast is indeed very disturbing. Much of the time the problems that have come with such exposure have made the problems run ahead of themselves allowing hardly any time for thought. We are a nation now, in some ways, like a deer caught in headlights.
For Sonam’s own life it is clear that the internet and social media has been a blessing, but she’s also aware that there is too much of a good thing, and that we need to step away to regain our balance, to regain ourselves.
I agree. I told myself that I would stop using my computer and ipad after 10 p.m. But last night I broke that rule. So enchanted was I by “Travelers and Magicians” that I read through every link I could find on Global Voices about Bhutan. I got to know Tshokey, “Penstar“, Dorji Wangchuk, Tshering Tobgay, and Unagi. I was amazed by how thoughtful the discussions were in the comments that followed. It reminded me of the good old days of blogging in 2004 and 2005 when the majority of posts would inspire in-depth conversations with 15 or 20 or more comments. More than a sense of conversation, there was a sense of lasting community. These days we hardly have enough time to align our lives for long enough to participate in one coherent conversation. More than half the people who started reading this post don’t have the attention span or the interest to make it this far. I hope that Bhutan’s blogging community isn’t headed down the same path.
I also hope that Tshewang considers making a documentary about the impact of the internet on Bhutan. It is something that the BBC would surely fund, and I know that he’d do an amazing job producing it.
(For now I highly recommend the fascinating 2008 “Bhutan Media Impact Study” carried out by the Ministry of Information and Communications with financial assistance from UNDP. Another worthwhile read is “Bhutan Goes Online” by Geoff Long, which provides a more historical and technical perspective of the internet’s arrival to Bhutan.
When I finally finished reading through all the blog posts I drifted asleep thinking about how much I’d like to one day visit Bhutan. But I am trying to travel less, both for my own health and the environment’s. Fortunately I can count on documentary filmmakers like Tshewang and bloggers like Sonam to help me become more familiar with their country from afar.
I met Tshewang at PopTech where he was a fellow for his work training a new generation of Bhutanese journalists in digital media production. Gideon and I trained the fellows how to create a 5-minute video using their Nokia N95 phones and iMovie. Perhaps with the sole exception of Erik who breathes technology, Tshewang picked up the digital editing process faster than anyone else. (Surely from all his filmmaking experience.) But he didn’t have his own Apple laptop to continue producing the videos when he returned to Bhutan. I had just purchased a new MacBook myself so I said, “go ahead, take mine, just don’t use any incriminating photos against me.”
I had visions of Tshe taking the laptop back to Bhutan and training a new generation of digital storytellers who would do for their country what California is a Place is doing for California. I’ve unfortunately lost touch with Tshe and so I’m not sure how the training program is going, but I can’t imagine anyone better suited to lead it. Here’s his presentation from PopTech. If you notice, the computer that is giving him problems as he flips through his slides is my old, stickered, white MacBook.