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maryann johanson, striking from a hidden base

Children of the Snow Land documentary review: an epic journey… to and from school

Children of the Snow Land green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

An unexpected, beautiful movie about the character and mettle it takes just to go to school when you come from one of the poorest and most remote places on the planet. A profoundly moving journey.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female codirector, female coscreenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

It’s the sort of timing that makes you think not “Wow, weird coincidence” but “Wow, we really are living in the Matrix and the programmers are messing with us.” In the same week that news breaks of a massive conspiracy of felony fraud and bribery committed by some of the wealthiest, most privileged Americans to get their spoiled slacker kids into prestigious universities, the documentary Children of the Snow Land arrives in cinemas in the UK (a nation that has its own issues with wealth and privilege in education). This feature debut from filmmakers Zara Balfour and Marcus Stephenson is a profoundly moving look at just how far some parents will go — in a wholly positive way, that is — and just how much they will sacrifice to give their kids a solid education and a better life than they have had. And what such sacrifice means for the children, too.

Children of the Snow Land

The places these kids are from are stunning, remote, and very poor.

“Just how far” is literal as well as figurative for the people of the Himalayans. Their incredibly remote mountain villages don’t have schools — don’t have telephones or Internet, are entirely off the grid — and so parents there may send a child away to a (free) boarding school in Kathmandu at a very young age… quite possibly never to see that child again. Snow Land introduces us to three 16- and 17-year-old students at Snowland Ranag Light of Education School who are about to embark upon a remarkable journey: back home, for the first time in a decade or more, to reunite with parents and siblings they will have grown up away from. Nima Gurung is from the highest inhabited place on earth, Nepal’s Upper Dolpo region, and his trip will take weeks, over rough terrain and into thin air; his classmates Tsering Deki and Jeewan Mahatara aren’t from quite as deep into the mountains and will travel merely for days.

The landscapes the teens travel are breathtaking, of course, and they document it with cameras and training provided by Balfour and Stephenson; they turn out to be terrific videographers. But its their inner journeys that are so warmly engaging. From their anxieties about their upcoming family reunions to their worries about the practicalities of life at homes they barely remember (Jeewan wonders if there will be “proper sanitation”), there emerges a portrait of real grit and true ambition, to merge their new lives and their new identities — as educated, sophisticated, plugged-in city dwellers — with their far more humble and far more limited roots. The extremes the kids traverse here are not only geographical but personal, too.

Children of the Snow Land

Jeewan Mahatara (in baseball cap) with his family in his home village. (At top, Tsering Deki and Nima Gurung.)

Balfour and Stephenson have an overt agenda with Children of the Snow Land: to raise awareness of the experiences of kids like these. There are dozens more schools like Snowland in Kathmandu alone, and millions of children from deprived and underdeveloped regions around the world are sent far away from their homes to receive an education. And the filmmakers hope to raise money, as well: most kids like Nima, Tsering, and Jeewan never even get to make such a trip home; it’s simply too expensive, at around US$2,000 per child (for guides, porters, food, equipment, and so on). The film’s official site has more info on how to support these children, which includes a fundraising campaign called Going Home.

All of this? All this small tragedy of family separation and big bravery of being a kid on your own in the wide world? Everything in this unexpected, beautiful movie about the character and mettle it takes just to go to school? This is what valuing an education looks like. Not the stuff that gets Hollywood helicopter moms hauled up on federal indictments.


Children of the Snow Land is on tour in UK cinemas from tomorrow, and will also debut on demand tomorrow on Curzon Home Cinema.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2019’s other theatrical releases.


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green light 4 stars

Children of the Snow Land (2019) | directed by Zara Balfour, Marcus Stephenson
UK/Ire release: Mar 14 2019 (VOD same day)

BBFC: rated PG (distressing references)

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer

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