In 1999 Debra Kaufman sat in her backyard riding the waves of chemotherapy with a lot of time to think about things that would make her sad if she died and hadn’t done them.
One of her most predominant thoughts was to go to Nepal and meet Tara Devi, a student she had been sponsoring for seven years.
As time passed, Debra could see a transformation.
“The first photo showed a skinny girl so malnourished that she couldn’t hold her head upright,” she says. In later photos Tara became more beautiful and healthier. “I started getting worried that her parents were going to marry her off. She was 13 and gorgeous.”
Health was returned to Debra in 2001 and the first thing she did was to go to Nepal.
“I’d done a lot of traveling, so I considered myself a sophisticated traveler,” she says. “I thought I had seen poverty but I’d never been to a place like Nepal. The vast majority of the country is totally untouched by not only the 20th Century but the 19th and 18th Centuries.”
Tara’s school, The Riverside School in the Lamsung region, is a self-sufficient oasis in the middle of a jungle. There is a generator for electricity and they have their own plumbing system.
Vegetables are grown in a greenhouse and a fish farm produces fish.
“Most importantly, they have a school where they teach about 185 kids who are the kids least likely to get any education,” says Debra, “kids who have been brought out of slavery, rescued from brothels and prostitution, rescued from the streets, orphans — kids who have no future.”
“The thing that I realized when I was there that was so dramatic to me was that not only were these kids getting an education that was leading to future education, they were also getting an education in democracy,” says Debra.
Nepal still has a caste system.
“There are so many levels of prejudice,” says Debra. “If you’re an untouchable or a lower caste or come from one of the indigenous tribes, you’re oppressed. If you’re a woman, you’re unbelievably oppressed.”
At the school it is forbidden for the students or teachers to refer to caste. It’s forbidden to discriminate on the basis of gender and religion. Because it’s typical for children to be beaten and molested, it’s also forbidden for the teachers to use violence.
“The school’s co-founder (Holland native Ingo Schnabel along with Tibetan lama Lobsang Ngodup) attracts teachers who agree with all of this,” says Debra.
Students get an education in speaking their minds.
“It’s such a hierarchical society, most Nepalese are soft-spoken and keep to themselves,” says Debra. “They aren’t used to speaking up for their own rights.”
The girls have a “spokesgirl” and the boys have a “spokesboy.” “The kids are empowered and encouraged to bring their complaints to the staff, even to fire their teachers,” she adds.
Amidst the empowerment of these children is a civil war going on among the adults.
“The struggle of ordinary children to learn is the backdrop of the struggle of Nepal to find a democracy,” says Debra. “They’re not so different, these struggles.”
Debra saw a story there. Not one to write about but to film. She has always been interested in film and made a couple while in graduate school at UCLA.
“At the time, making movies was a difficult affair,” she says. “Technology has made it more possible.”
Armed with a small team, Debra went back to Nepal. “I knew that, as a first-time filmmaker, the best way to look good was to surround myself with people who were a lot better than I was — and that’s exactly what I did,” she says.
The film, A School of Their Own ñ Reading, Writing and Revolution in Nepal, was mainly self-funded, but she acknowledges a lot of in-kind contributions from friends in the film and video community, plus help from local businesses.
“What I would like people to think about when they see my movie is the idea that you cannot impose democracy from above — that democracy has to grow organically — it starts with children,” she says.
Apparently Debra and her team did a really good job on their politically-themed film. It debuted in December at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York, was featured in February at the Boulder International Film Festival and will be shown at the Reel Women International Film Festival this summer.
More important for us, it will be shown locally this month for its Los Angeles premiere.
“I love Venice and that’s one of the reasons I’m delighted that my movie is in the Other Venice Film Festival — the important Venice film festival” says Debra.
A School of Their Own ñ Reading, Writing and Revolution in Nepal will be shown at 10 a.m. Sunday, March 19th, at the Electric Lodge at 1416 Electric Ave., Venice.
For ticket and other schedule information go to