Films are capable of transporting us to other worlds and great films allow us to slip back in time. The documentary “Searching for Nepal” follows Philip Deutschle as he returns to the village of Aiselukharka in Nepal. Deutschle spent two years in the village in the late 1970’s as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching science at the schoolhouse and helping the villagers to obtain clean drinking water. The documentary, directed by Deutschle along with cameraman and editor Robyn Hutman, juxtaposes personal photos from the 70s with splendid documentary footage as he pursues a piece of his past.
After decades of wondering what became of his adopted Nepali family and the village school he left behind, Deutschle decides he must go back. He provides gentle and unguarded narration through the journey as he attempts to explain the urgency which drew him to the people and the place.
Since he left, Nepal has suffered decades of poverty, a prolonged bloody Maoist uprising, and the 2001 assassination of the royal family. Deutschle leaves on the journey without even knowing the state of Aiselukharka or his adopted family (most importantly the patriarch Krishna Bhakta). Early on in the doc, the chances of the reunion to live up to his expectations seem slim, but when he finally completes the long trek to the distant village, things seem to be quite well. You get the impression that Deutschle thought he would be treated as a prodigal son and be begged to stay and help rebuild what he abandoned. Instead, the town has thrived. They have a rice mill business, clean water, a road, and electricity. Instead of a school in ruins, he finds it being renovated and now even has computers. He is reunited with a happy and healthy Krishna Bhakta and is reintroduced to old students, some of which now teach at the school themselves.
Since Deutschle is such an overwhelming presence in the film (the film is even punctuated with passages from his book about his time in Nepal “The Two Year Mountain”) that it is important to discuss his personality. He has the ponytailed appearance of a a man who would operate a new age health food store or ride a recumbent bicycle. He is kind and childlike but also seems somewhat broken. Never able to recover after he left Nepal behind. Deutschle is repeatedly surprised at how much has changed. He seems flummoxed that they could survive and even flourish without him. We never uncover what his real family life was like and why it never fulfilled him as much as his Nepali family. He also has a strange habit of referring to the village as “my village”, his old room as “my room” and his family of an important but brief two years as “my family”. The first question, which goes unanswered, asked of Deutschle by Krishna Bhakta is “Where is your family?”. He seems surprised that Deutschle would make this extreme journey by himself and probably expected him to have a family of his own after so many years.
“Searching For Nepal” is the study of a man who clearly feels that the most important time in his life is past. In the village he did real work and affected real change. In one scene, as he struggles to relearn the Nepali language, Deutschle describes actual fluency as thinking in a new way and becoming another person. Somewhat stuck in and idealized age, it seems as if he was never able to make this transformation.
With Nepal in the news recently due to the catastrophic earthquake which took the lives of untold thousands, “Searching For Nepal” is a beautiful and fitting love letter to the land and people. Toward the end of the film, Deutschle says he wishes he could hold Aiselukharka in his heart forever. Hopefully this film will do that for him.