Review: Drawing the Tiger (Benson & Squire, 2015) – CAAMFest 2016 Preview


Through their first feature-length documentary film, Drawing the Tiger, filmmakers Amy Benson and Scott Squire follow the fortunes of one rural Nepali family over the course of seven years. The Darnals are typical Nepali subsistence farmers with many children, little to no income, and mounting debts. What they do have, however, is an extremely bright daughter, Shanta, who has received a scholarship to a school in Kathmandu, where she can get a better education than she could in the inadequate village schoolhouse.

Interviews with Shanta, her family, and the village headmaster reveal her to be a vivacious and ambitious girl. She dreams of becoming a doctor, of supporting her family, of making a difference in her village. Living with her brother Kumar and his family in Kathmandu, however, hasn’t been easy. Even while she enjoys the comforts of the city, she misses her parents and village. And she doesn’t get along well with her uneducated sister-in-law, who she feels doesn’t understand her. Meanwhile, she worries that the education she is receiving won’t prepare her for the future she desires. In one scene, she laments the fact that her school teaches computer skills but has no computers to teach them on.

Then a swift and unthinkable calamity strikes the Darnal family. Reeling from their sadness, everyone has a theory, but, ultimately, no one can determine the reason for the tragedy.

Benson and Squire first met the Darnals when they were hired to create a promotional video for the non-profit that awarded Shanta’s scholarship. Because of her unusual promise, the organization chose Shanta to be the video’s centerpiece. When the filmmakers learned of the tragedy, however, they returned to Nepal to understand what had happened. The questions they want their documentary to ask are, How does something like this befall a girl who seemed, by the standards of her village peers, to have everything she needed? And, implicitly, How did we all fail her?

But Drawing the Tiger cannot answer the first question–above all, because the question is unanswerable. Benson and Squire interview the Darnal family at length; they also simply show their lives. It is not a redemptive film. They don’t sugarcoat the pain, drudgery, and hopelessness of the family’s situation. Women married at 14, 15, 16 (the average age of marriage in rural Nepal is 16). Too many children. Then the children help with chores, go to school when they can, and do their homework by headlamp when the daylight fails. Sushila, Shanta’s mother and the household’s main support, becomes ill and can no longer manage back-breaking work 17 hours a day. The family has no money to pay for the tuition of Shanta’s siblings, even at the deficient local school. It seems a rural family’s only hope for a better life is for its child to win a scholarship, and yet that same good fortune also brings bad fortune.

I’m grateful to Benson and Squire for making an honest documentary, one that doesn’t disguise the bleak. Drawing the Tiger is not without its ray of hope, but that ray is tenuous and unreliable, as it is and must be in real life. By the end of the film we still don’t know of a happy outcome for the Darnals. Perhaps there won’t be one.

The questions the filmmakers ask and that the documentary, though profoundly moving and worthwhile, doesn’t answer, is better addressed in Amy Benson’s TEDx Talk, which I’ve included below.

Drawing the Tiger will screen at the San Francisco Bay Area’s CAAMFest on the evening of Friday, March 11, at the Castro’s Roxie theater. This screening is a must-see, particularly because Amy Benson will be attending and answering questions after the film.