Fulmaya, the Girl with Skinny Legs: a documentary for the big screen about an actress’s unusual time in Nepal

Dorota Nvotová, photo: Tina Palu

In this week’s In Focus, we look at the success of a new Czech documentary called Fulmaya, the Girl with Skinny Legs. The film is a portrait of Slovak actress and musician Dorota Nvotová and how she chose a path less travelled: life in Nepal for six years where she worked as a guide and above all helped to raise funds for children at a local orphanage.

Dorota Nvotová,  photo: Tina Palu
As a result the film is largely set in Kathmandu, the otherworldly Himalayas, and also – briefly – Dorota’s native Bratislava.

Vendula Bradáčová, the film’s director told me about how the project came together.

“I was completing an earlier project for TV and was looking for something new when I came across an interview in a magazine that someone had done with Dorota Nvotová and I was intrigued. The story was very moving and I realised I had to make it into a film.”

The actress Dorota Nvotová, named Fulmaya in Nepal by her “adopted” family, had been raising money abroad for children an orphanage called Happy Home. In the film the celebrity discusses how she raised funds even during unlikely occasions back in Slovakia, such as a birthday celebration where several thousand euros were put in a pot to make possible renovation and expansion of the Kathmandu orphanage and school.

Later, we see the school, its children – who would otherwise most likely live in untold poverty or disease on the street or sniffing glue like some of the youths glimpsed in later scenes – and Nvotová acts as a dependable, funny and energetic guide, at home in the environment as if she had lived there all her life. Quick-minded, impulsive, always on the move, Nvotová communicates freely with the camera. Major points in the story, Vendula Bradáčová says, were determined in advance, but much of the material was, by necessity, unscripted. She says as a first time feature-length film director, she especially wanted to fully capitalise on unexpected moments.

'Fulmaya',  photo: Tina Palu
“Life there can be very chaotic but if you relax and just let things move freely, remain open to possibilities, and let go of the script a little, a lot of things come together on their own. We knew we wanted to film Dorota’s everyday life; we knew wanted to look into Happy Home and at the lives of children there, as well as to get among street kids at night to show their reality. And we knew we had to film Dorota in the Himalayas because that is where she makes her living as a guide.”

Unexpected, though, was her helping a sick child suffering on the sidewalk with her mother, members of the lowest caste for all practical purposes abandoned to their fate. In the scene, Nvotová checks the child’s temperature and insists it be brought to a hospital, an area the viewer would scarcely have any chance to penetrate.

Bradáčová says the scene was unscripted and rejects accusations by some reviewers that the moment was staged. If there is one thing that comes across particularly clearly in Fulmaya, it is that Nvotová, rarely without a cigarette in hand, or a joke on her lips lives on impulse, in the present, and does things that need doing: there seems to be no need for her to inflate her image artificially. If fame was what she had wanted, after all, she need never have left Slovakia. Vendula Bradáčová again:

Vendula Bradáčová,  photo: Tina Palu
“There was one journalist who accused us of doing PR for Dorota, of staging that scene. But what unravelled was real. The child was badly dehydrated and I think would have died in a matter of days. We knew of the mother beforehand, but we didn’t know that moment would unfold the way it did.

“For me, charges that Dorota had an ulterior motive are unwarranted. She lived in Nepal for quite a while and she helped because she wanted to and for no other reason. That’s who she is.”

Among the film’s biggest strengths is the director’s non-judgemental approach as well as visual style: after the densely-packed streets of Kathmandu, where life never stops for a second, Bratislava after Dorota Nvotová’s eventual return, by contrast, appears cold, quiet, abandoned. In Kathmandu, Bradáčová and her cameraman successfully employ time-lapse photography, using a motorised camera mounted on rails. The shots, done cleanly, speed up bustling activity which never ends, while individuals in the foreground or part of the frame remain anchored: Dorota, or her three-year-old namesake at the orphanage, or a street kid. Particularly effective are shots which rise above places and people and set the scene. The director explains:

'Fulmaya',  photo: Tina Palu
“I wanted to use the shots to add visual punctuation but it occurred to me and my cameraman that we could use them as a means of introducing the different ‘characters’ and places as well. In one shot you would see Dorota herself, in another, her namesake Fulmaya at the orphanage: a real child of Buddhism. Time-lapse shots take around 30-40 minutes to shoot and she just sat there quietly and stared at the camera the whole time, while other children bustled around her.”

Gradually, viewers got a feel for life at Happy Home as an opportunity for poor children without families, without homes. All the more shocking are revelations that came to light almost at the end; the film in fact was practically finished when Dorota Nvotová and Vendula Bradáčová learned that life at Happy Home, fairly positive in appearance at first, was not nearly as idyllic as it seemed. Vendula Bradáčová again:

“It turns out that filling orphanages in Nepal, not just at Happy Home, is a big business, profiting from sponsors. Poor families are coaxed to give up their child by those who promise the kids will have a better future. Then, a fake back story is created, claiming the kids were found on the street.

'Fulmaya',  photo: Tina Palu
“The problem at Happy Home was even more serious because corporal punishment was secretly applied and even psychological torture. If a child wet his bed at two in the morning, another was forced to wash the clothes. Often, the children were threatened with damnation in the next life, which for them was terrifying. In too many places that is how it works.”

The truth is more sinister than benefactors like Dorota Nvotová, could have suspected and the revelation is blunt, largely unexpected and bewildering, reverberating after the last frame. The only certainty is that Dorota Nvotová, now back in Slovakia, has not given up her Nepalese journey but at most put it on hold. Above all, she is still trying to return as many of the children as she can to their original families.

Dorota Nvotová,  photo: Tina Palu
“Dorota was not broken by the revelation: she is not giving up and that is one of the main points of the story. So far, she has rescued 12 children from the orphanage. All she can do is to try and find their biological parents. She is trying to get them out.”

Hopefully Dorota Nvotová will be successful in her mission; to quote a popular saying she repeats in the film: ‘Everything turns out ok in the end and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end’.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on June 11, 2013.