Documentary on One

The Unknown Nomad

The life of Meme, a nomad in the Himalayas, as he witnesses modernisation coming to the mountains, is explored in this radio documentary, recorded over four years.

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4.6/5 (18 ratings)

Documentary maker: Donagh Coleman

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The Unknown Nomad

Meme, a nomad from the Himalayan plateau in Ladakh, India, died in late autumn of 2009 at the age of 70.

Irish-Finnish director Donagh Coleman got to know Meme over repeated trips for the shooting of his documentary film "Stone Pastures", in which Meme was one of the main characters.

In this radio documentary, the news of the old man's passing sets Donagh reflecting on Meme's life as well as the arduous 4-year process of making the documentary film.

Meme came from a premodern world and lived in one of the harshest inhabited environments on earth - a high altitude cold desert at nearly 15 000 feet.

In his lifetime, Meme witnessed developments greater in scope than our grandparents or even great-grandparents had experienced, as modernisation encroached on this ancient way of life.

Just in the 4 years during which Donagh visited Meme's village, its population was nearly halved as more and more children were sent to school and the nomads moved to town.

We meet the old nomad in his last years, grappling with the changes sweeping his village, and worrying about the future of his favourite grandnephew Padma, who, like most nomadic teenagers, is attracted to modern life.

Alongside Meme's story, the programme chronicles the making of a documentary film in a far-away culture and extreme environment. The lengths to which the filmmaker will go for the sake of story approaches madness, as he puts his own and others' lives at risk.

In the end, the greatest challenge was not presented by the thin air, freezing temperatures or perilous mountain roads of the Himalayas.

What proved most difficult was to understand and stay open to the other - especially as the people of the film came from such vastly different backgrounds. The natural inclination to impose one's own ideas and storylines onto others can be especially pronounced and distorting with documentary-makers, as they seek to make stories out of real lives.

How well did the documentary-maker really come to know this old man, whose passing was the passing of a whole ancient world?

First broadcast Saturday 18th September 2010

Produced by Donagh Coleman

An Irish radio documentary from RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland - Documentary on One - the home of Irish radio documentaries.

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