Nepal's Troubled History Is Spotlighted in Foreign-Language Oscar Entry 'White Sun'

Like the Himalayas, Deepak Rauniyar's drama captures the collision of forces both ancient and ongoing.

The second feature from director Deepak Rauniyar, White Sun tells the story of Chandra, who, after being away for a decade, returns to his remote mountain village to bury his father. But Chandra is more than a prodigal son. He's a Maoist, a former guerrilla who fought against the Nepali government during the country's long and bloody civil war. As Chandra struggles to transport his father's body for burial according to traditional customs, he finds that despite thousands of lives lost in the name of revolution and progress, the old societal and familial divisions remain.

Nepal's civil war began in 1996, when Rauniyar was 17, and continued until 2006. But even now, he explains, "two decades after, still the lives of citizens are impacted by the same war, and still the situation of this country is politically not stable. I wanted to bring that experience to the screen."

It was his desire to portray the Nepali experience that drew Rauniyar to become a filmmaker in the first place. "I was working in print media as a film critic and started to watch a lot of films," he explains. "And [Nepali] films used to make me very angry because our society went thorough lot of things — revolution, democracy being reinstated and war — but our cinema never portrayed that. It was more Bollywood, and not only Bollywood but mostly copied directly from Korean films, melodramas."

In 2015, Rauniyar was about to leave New York for Nepal to begin principal photography on White Sun when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake devastated the country — including the village he had chosen for his location. "Everything was wiped out," he recalls.

He considered incorporating the earthquake into the story but instead left it in the background. "I made a decision," he says. "No, we shouldn't mix the natural disaster with the man-made disaster. The war was the man-made; it is not a natural disaster. It might have a very different feeling if we mix it."

So he postponed the shoot, found another location and rescheduled. As his crew arrived and prepared for the journey to the new village, a protest prompted the Indian government to close the one border through which Nepal imports its commodities. "We didn't have cooking gas, we didn't have fuel," Rauniyar recounts.

Undaunted, he and his crew made their way to the new location, a mountain village inaccessible by road. Getting there required a host of donkeys and porters, and the route was so tough that some older castmembers had to be carried.

Just as in the film, three generations of Nepalis — "children born after the war, and the generation of me [like Chandra] and the generation of my parents," Rauniyar explains — struggled together on a mountain path. What's more, the cast and crew found themselves discussing the complex themes of the film: class, war, family, tradition and modernity. (In fact, Rauniyar cast actors whose life experiences and political affiliations aligned with those of their character, and much of the film's dialogue is made up of their real conversations.)

In setting out to portray a uniquely Nepali experience, Rauniyar's film (which screened in New York and L.A. in October) also ended up addressing challenges faced by many communities all over the world. "Film can help us to know each other or understand each other better," he says. "Cinema, if we use it in a particularly nice way, can change society."

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.