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With the film “Zanskar, the promises of winter”, the director Caroline Riegel pays a vibrant tribute to her Buddhist nun friends

There are films like that, which give you back faith in Man while the news encourages withdrawal. Films which make you happy and lead you to believe that individualism has not taken over everywhere, that together we can endure a lot of things. Zanskar, the promises of winter, directed by Caroline Riegel, is one of them. Honored at several adventure film festivals this fall (with 3 prizes this weekend at the Autrans mountain film festival) it will be broadcast on Thursday December 16 at 10:25 p.m. on Arte and available on from December 9 to February 13.

In January 2020, just before the outbreak of the pandemic, Caroline Riegel leaves once again for Zanskar, this small valley lost in the northwest of India that she discovered in 2004/2005, during a first great trip through Asia. She decided to spend another winter with those who have become very dear friends, 13 Buddhist nuns living in the village of Tungri, at 3700 meters above sea level. A small community which has “upset [son] existence“and to which she had dedicated a first moving film full of humanity, Sowers of joy. “Free yourself from time, be in the present moment, immersed as close as possible to people,“This is what the young woman was looking for.

Fifteen years later and after many stays at Tungri which allowed him to perfect his language learning “and friendship“, a second project has therefore emerged with Zanskar, the promises of winter. OFrom the outset, you are immersed in the harshness of this isolated and grandiose Himalayan valley which you can access only by skirting or walking on the Chadar, the deep river normally frozen in this season. A journey strewn with pitfalls, for which it will take 10 days (instead of the 2 planned) for Caroline, her companion Emmanuel Armand, two nuns and villagers who came to pick them up in Leh, before reaching the village, wrapped in his cocoon snowy. Until March, she will film the daily life of her friends, in this winter “which imposes to live at the rhythm of yesteryear“and which still protects the valley from the rest of a world”watchfulAs a road under construction brings Zanskar closer to the rest of India in all seasons, the film offers a strong and luminous testimony to an endangered way of life.

The difficult access to Zanskar, along the frozen river (Caroline Riegel)

Clear snow, prepare meals, rites, pray, sew … the days of the nuns of Tungri pass peacefully, between bursts of laughter and reflections on their lives, their fears, their hopes, in front of Caroline Riegel’s camera that they learned together to tame. “I don’t make myself forget, we are in the present moment and when one of the nuns speaks to the camera, she may be saying things more consciously“, notes the director who succeeds tremendously in revealing a little of the intimacy of these simple but extraordinary women, whom we in turn would like to have as friends.

Originally from the village, these nuns, aged from around twenty for Djorkit to over 85 for Abi Pele, chose the monastic path as a teenager. Despite total destitution and very difficult climatic conditions in winter, all of them exude a communicative serenity. Even the dean, who fears the cold and is sorry to be only good at praying. “They represent humanity and it is all the more remarkable that they are not scholars, like other nuns., emphasizes Caroline Riegel. But they have great intelligence of heart and mind.“When they came to France after the release of Sowers of Joy, the director noticed the same effects at each meeting with the audience. “I saw different faces, something that suddenly shines a little more, something of great intensity“.

But life behind closed doors, as peaceful as it is, sometimes reserves unexpected explosions, such as the flight of young Sonam when she discovers her pregnancy. And it is thanks to the collective, the backbone of their small society, that all of them overcome the vagaries that weaken a community already on borrowed time. “It’s work and effort every day to keep this life. Nuns share both joy and pain and anger. We vibrate, we reflect, we feel collectively. They are aware of their happiness, which is a fundamental value of Buddhism.

The "sowers of joy" dear to Caroline Riegel (Caroline Riegel)

Forced to leave in disaster because of the pandemic at the end of her wintering, Caroline, who experiences each separation as a “wrenching happiness“, only hope for one thing: return to Tungri as soon as possible”to take stock and allow everyone to learn about what has been done, the work to improve the cells, the installation of solar panels … ” Achievements, such as the creation of a school, which resulted thanks to the association Thigspa (“drop of water” in Tibetan) that it created almost 10 years ago. “Nuns have no resources. I collect a financial mattress to help them, for care, so that they all age gently. Today I am happy because we managed to train the village to get involved in the nunnery. People come to help them clear the snow, cut the grass, do little things. The bonds grew stronger and respect came.

The young woman spares no effort to achieve this. An engineer in hydraulic construction, she alternates working on dam sites, months without pay and part-time to move projects forward. At the same time as the film, the beautiful book version of Sowers of joy, photographic collection, between “tribute” and “love declaration“, was released last October at Hemeria, thanks to the crowdfunding of more than 700 donors. Twenty percent of the profits are donated to the nunnery.

And then there are the festivals, for meeting the public, for live connections with Tungri, to tell this extraordinary friendship and this example of humanity that hangs by a thread. Caroline is inexhaustible! But how could it be otherwise? “Meeting the nuns is beyond my comprehension, she concludes. For them, it is necessarily linked to an old life!

Zanskar, the promises of winter, (53 minutes) December 16 at 10:25 p.m. on Arte, from December 9 to February 13, 2022 on

Sowers of joy, Editions Hemeria, € 49 – Caroline Riegel will be present at the photographic meetings organized by Editions Hemeria on Saturday 11 (11 a.m. to 7 p.m.) and Sunday 12 December (11 a.m. to 4 p.m.) at Galerie 89 (Paris 12th arrondissement).

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