Imagine that for hundreds of years, your family has been part of a thriving village... only to now find that you're the only ones left. That's exactly the situation in Kulum, in the Indian Himalayas. Filmmaker Alex Felstead brings us the short documentary "The Village of Kulum", showing what it's like to be at the frontline of the climate crisis.
Congratulations on the documentary. Can you tell us a little more about what drew you to the Indian Himalayas?
Thank you very much! Last year I landed a place on a Scientific Expedition with the British Exploring Society to Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas. As a Geography graduate with a passion for the outdoors and keen interest in mountaineering, this was a unique part of the world I had always read about and had seen wonderful images of, so I was very keen to visit.
As an aspiring documentary filmmaker, I wanted to make the most of the opportunity and decided to plan a documentary. I started researching and found that water scarcity in the region of Ladakh was a serious threat and considering my interest in human/environment interactions, I knew that this was something I wanted to investigate further.
...and if you could summarise the documentary in a few sentences, what would you say?
This is a short documentary about issues of water scarcity and its effects on the last remaining family in the remote village of ‘Kulum’ located in the region of Ladakh. With high levels of water scarcity, the village has been unable to sustain a traditional way of life through subsistence farming and has had to look for alternative sources of income.
The documentary highlights some of the difficulties this final family are facing and examines the innovative eco-solution, ‘The Ice Stupa’, spearheaded by a NGO in the region who are helping a range of communities in similar situations to adapt and manage their water resources.
Logistically, how did you find shooting the documentary? Did you face any hurdles?
Many hurdles! I began researching the story 3 or 4 months before I went and because of complexities with luggage weight and being on an expedition beforehand, I had to limit gear so was only able to take one camera, two memory cards, a recorder and a clip-on mic. Having finished the expedition, I had planned to film the documentary in 4 days entirely on my own… but I had no phone signal, limited WiFi and many of the leads I had made prior to the expedition had been lost!
I had no luck for the first few days and it was looking like all hope was lost, yet on the day before I was supposed to fly out I met KD, a local woman who worked for Local Futures, a charity led by Helena Norburg-Hodge. I explained my project and my difficulty finding the village I had identified in my research. She had never heard of it either and neither had many locals. Nevertheless, that day we had found a rough location, found a driver and drove two hours to a nearby town and there asked more locals before eventually being directed to the village. Once we arrived, we only had a few hours to film everything as we had to return within the same day. I ended up meeting KD, finding the village, filming all the content for the documentary and returning back, all within the final 24 hours before I was due to fly home.
Why was it so important to tell this story?
As a Geography graduate with a passion for working in documentary and factual TV, I have always been drawn to storytelling about the natural world, most significantly looking at the complex relationships between humanity and environment. With the ever-growing pressures as a result of the climate crisis, there has never been a more important time to document what it is we are doing to our planet.
Many people across the world are acutely aware of the significance of the climate crisis, however there is an undercurrent of populations in many countries that still dismiss the idea or don’t feel the moral responsibility to act. I find these perspectives extremely alarming and I felt it was important to show how our actions are causing devastation around the world by bringing a personal face to a global crisis – so that those deniers can understand exactly who their actions are having an impact on. I personally feel that this is perhaps what causes excessive and often careless behaviour in the Global North, our inability to see how one’s actions might impact the lives of people around the world.
I felt I had a unique opportunity and a moral obligation to clearly show how climate change is affecting real lives on the frontline of the crisis, to raise awareness and most importantly encourage meaningful change to those contributing towards it. That’s why I ended the documentary with a call to action to the populations of the Global North.
Is there hope for communities such as the community in Kulum?
Very much so! Despite the devastating situation of this particular village, the documentary showed elements of optimism and hope. Many NGOs, most noticeably ‘The Ice Stupa Project’ and ‘Local Futures’ are helping these communities adapt to their changing environments. Let’s get this straight – no community should have to be implementing such solutions in the first place, however the project’s ideas and designs have since been introduced into Switzerland and Southern America as water scarcity begins to affect everyone, no matter race, gender, age or class and has had much success in providing communities with the opportunity to continue their traditional way of life.
Sonam Wangchuck, the lead designer of the Ice Stupa Project, recently won the Rolex Entrepreneur Award and has been internationally recognised for his eco-solutions around water scarcity which I hope will bring more attention to this challenge and in turn bring more meaningful action. Through no fault of their own, the people of Ladakh are battling the effects of climate change and coming up with innovative solutions to mitigate it, but they can’t battle this fight alone and so we must play our part by reducing our carbon emissions.
What was your key take away from spending time with the family?
Indigenous communities, such as the family members of Kulum, have a drastically different relationship to their environment and with one another than the Global North does. Their passion for protecting their environment, ecosystem and traditional ways of life, combined with their supportive, empathetic and kind family dynamic, underpinned everything they did.
The UK is the antithesis of this. For many, life is busy and cluttered and can lack any real purpose or meaning. Families are more disjointed, and empathy seems to place last after anger, frustration and stress. As a result, my key take away from this experience is to live with purpose, to be empathetic and to look for optimism and hope, no matter the situation.
What role do the Global North play in this story?
The lust for profit and growth in the Global North has been built around a finite system of resources soon to be exhausted. The current climate commitments of the most polluting countries, supposedly designed to “transform our world”, do not go far enough to deal with the desire for unlimited growth within this finite system. We are failing to protect those marginalised by the impacts of this continual growth and from the displacement caused by the climate crisis, as seen within the documentary. The Global North simply have to take more responsibility and do more to prevent this crisis growing.
What's next for you in your work as a filmmaker?
My passion for storytelling I hope will continue through my work as a filmmaker, as I pursue a career in documentary and factual TV. I have recently landed a job with the production company “One Tribe TV” based in Bath, where I am soon to be working with the amazing team there to produce informative content, help inspire and encourage conversation around topics of the great outdoors, adventure and travel. Alongside this, I am collaborating with other creatives and working on a few other projects including a documentary in Greece and the region’s marine wildlife.
Can people get in touch with you? How is best to do that?
Story telling about our natural world and the issues we are currently facing has never been more important. I am always looking for new projects and would welcome collaborating or discussing new ideas!