Last month, Al Jazeera 101 East’s’The Widows of Everest‘ won bronze at the New York Festivals TV and Film Awards. The documentary, which highlighted the challenges faced by the widows of mountaineers in the Khumbu region of Nepal, was co-directed by Rojita Adhikari, a freelance journalist based in Nepal. On May 11, the documentary was nominated for the Women’s Solutions Reporting Award at One World Media.
In March, ‘Save the mother of Nepal’Adhikari’s directorial debut, also for Al Jazeera’s 101 East, received rave reviews for depicting the harrowing reality of maternal mortality in rural Nepal.
“We hear about the drop in maternal mortality rate every year, but the situation has not changed much for people living in rural areas of Nepal. It’s to portray what’s happening away from urban journalism that I work independently trying to bridge the gap,” says Adhikari.
With two critically acclaimed documentaries to his name, Adhikari has earned a reputation as one of the up-and-coming names in Nepal’s documentary cinema landscape. Born and raised in Daman, Makwanpur, Adhikari had her first stint as a journalist when she was just 16 years old. Since then, she has traveled to 72 districts, covering stories from rural Nepal that often go uncovered by mainstream media.
In this interview with the Post Pinki Sris RanaAdhikari talks about her career as a journalist, what journalism means to her, and her decision to work as a freelance journalist.
Tell us about your background as a journalist. How did it all start?
When I was growing up in Daman, I had a cousin sister who had been a victim of polygamy. Having seen many injustices like this in my village, I traveled to Kathmandu after completing my SLC [now SEE] study law and become a lawyer. In Kathmandu, I realized that I had to finish grade 12 first to be able to study law. I chose the humanities program for my high school, which introduced me to journalism. Studying journalism made me realize the power of the media to highlight different realities and fight injustices. It was then that I decided to become a journalist.
At the age of 16, I started an internship in a radio station based in Kathmandu, which lasted 10 months. After that, I was accepted to work as a trainee reporter at Antenna Foundation Nepal. I was then promoted to producer. It was while working for Antenna Foundation that I started working on Doko Radio, and this experience turned out to be the turning point in my professional life. During my time at Antenna Foundation, our team visited some of the most remote areas of Nepal and established radio stations with the resources we had and designed radio programs based on the challenges and lifestyles of the locals. I was able to visit 40 districts and witnessed the many realities of rural Nepal.
Then in 2010 I landed a job at BBC Media Action, where we had to do radio magazines. This is where I learned a lot about international media and their opportunities. I also discovered my true potential while working there. After working three and a half years at BBC Media Action, the program I was part of came to an end. So since 2014, I have been a freelance journalist.
It’s been eight years as a freelance journalist. What prompted you to become a freelance journalist?
I worked as a radio journalist for nearly nine years. In 2014, I realized that radio was nearing its end, I felt the need to change gears and that’s when I decided to start writing.
But writing an in-depth story that creates an impact takes at least a week or two. Unfortunately, no national daily newspaper in Nepal is down for such tedious work. So I worked independently, pursuing stories that I thought mattered. Thanks to the savings from my move to BBC Media Action, I was able to support myself as a freelance journalist.
Tell us about the challenges you faced during your first days as a freelance journalist.
Deciding to become a freelance journalist after working for an internationally renowned media outlet was not easy. There were times when I questioned my decision and my career trajectory. Some years I only wrote two or three stories, and that meant minimal income.
My family and friends also started to question my decision to work as a freelance journalist. My parents, who were so proud of me when I worked for BBC Media Action, began to worry that my career was going haywire.
Things started to change for the better in 2015. When earthquakes hit the country that year, I started helping foreign media reporters who had come to Nepal to report. Impressed with my work, many of these reporters also started giving me signatures. And that’s how I started to build my credibility in the international media.
“Saving Nepal’s Mother”, which explored the maternal mortality rate in Nepal, was the first documentary you made. How did the public react?
I started producing multimedia stories on maternal mortality while working at the Antenna Foundation. I had even written on the matter for The Guardian and Nepali time. But many people came to me saying that my articles were not based on facts because many organizations that have conducted research on the subject have shown that the maternal mortality rate in Nepal is declining. But the point I was trying to get across with the articles was that the maternal mortality rate hadn’t come down as much in rural Nepal. But once the documentary was released, people could no longer question the credibility of the video because the visuals were all there for them to see. Although text is my preferred medium, I know the power of multimedia.
There is this belief that international media coverage of Nepal is mostly limited to stories of Nepal’s poverty and hardship. What do you have to say about that?
Even though positive stories from Nepal are covered by international media, the majority of their coverage of Nepal is about poverty and hardship. This is likely because we haven’t yet mastered the skills needed to sell positive stories. Or it could also be because poverty and hardship are still a reality for the majority of the people living in the rural areas of Nepal.
Your documentary “The Widows of Everest” recently won a bronze medal at the New York TV and Film Festivals Awards. What were the challenges that were involved in making the doc, and why do you think it resonated so much with people?
The main challenge we faced while making the documentary was convincing our sources to share their stories with us. It is understandable that many of the widows we spoke to were unwilling to talk about their loss and the challenges they faced. They also feared that their responses would do more harm than good to the reputation of the community. It took us time to earn their trust and convince them that they really spoke for women like them.
On a personal level, making the documentary was a challenge because it was my first documentary as a co-director. We had to shoot additional audiovisuals at a time when the cases of Covid-19 in the country were increasing rapidly. During filming, I contracted Covid-19 and almost died. It was scary.
I think this documentary has been successful in getting people’s attention because the majority of Sherpa mountaineer stories that are covered highlight the risks of their professions. But with this documentary, we tried to explore the challenges and struggles of mountaineer wives and families.
What do you think of the current state of all forms of journalism in Nepal?
The majority of the Nepalese population lives in the rural areas of Nepal, but Nepalese journalism is too city-centric. The stories that come from the districts come from correspondents based at district headquarters. In fact, no one goes to rural parts of rural areas to bring their problems to national attention. National dailies are so busy covering the news that they barely have the time and resources to cover other topics.
Additionally, we desperately need media houses not affiliated with commercial groups. The presence of such independent media will help improve the quality of journalism in our country.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.