Hot Docs

Devi Review: Nepalese Survivors Inspire Collective Healing

Hot Docs 2024

6 mins read

(Nepal/South Korea/UK, 80 min.)
Dir. Subina Shrestha
Programme: International Competition


In the late 1990s, the Kingdom of Nepal was in the throes of a civil war. The Maoists, fuelled by ideologies generated in neighbouring China, were intent on overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a new state. By the time a ceasefire was instituted in 2006, hundreds of thousands of victims were recorded in the conflict, with over 17,000 killed. The King and much of his family was butchered, allegedly by the Crown Prince, and a huge portion of the population was displaced.

A truth and reconciliation commission was set up bring the peace to the nation following the hostilities. It documented the murder, torture and other atrocities that occurred, much of which was done far from the gaze of an uninterested world. Despite thousands of cases to be investigated, one aspect of the conflict that was severely under reported was the use of sexual violence. With cultural norms amplifying shame and silence from the survivors, it’s only now, decades later, that some of those most deeply affected by these crimes feel able to come forward.

Subina Shrestha’s film Devi follows these women as they attempt to shift the conversation of truth and reconciliation to more fitfully address these deeply secreted aspects of the brutal conflict. The film follows Devi Khadka and uses her experiences as a touchstone. Her story is representative of so many women who still feel reluctant to come forward in full. (The majority of those with stories of sexual assault share their experiences with their faces blurred out.)

Devi’s story fascinates. Her brother was murdered by security forces, and she played a major role in the Maoist uprising, joining thousands of women who fought against the royalists in favour of the absolute monarchical status quo. She experienced gang sexual assault in captivity. Following her release, she became a military commander, channelling her anger and rage and externalizing the violence that had been done upon her. She later became a district secretary, and then one of the first MPs to form the new government.

The film is told very much from her perspective, yet spends appropriate time hearing from the many women that had similar experiences of sexual violence but without the political connections that Devi is able to deploy in order to elicit change. We see her meet with leaders from many facets of contemporary Nepali society, many of whom were themselves fellow fighters for the Maoist cause.

Shot in a straightforward, almost vérité style, it’s visually elevated by the fact that just about anywhere in that region you point a camera you’re likely to get a photographically engaging vision, from the stunning vistas of snow-capped mountains to the warren-like houses nestled closely together in the capital city. Yet it’s Devi’s own countenance that provides the most intricate landscape, her face shot in close-up expressing the deep conflicts and memories of horror that continue to plague her.

Devi’s own daughter was an infant when the bombs began to fall, and now a grown teenager, she too had ambivalent feelings relating to her mother’s journey, with a sense of abandonment conflicting with the strong maternal feeling she’s receiving as well. This multi-generational trauma is yet another manifestation of how the scars of war are drawn upon everyone on all sides of the conflict. Devi shows how the stories of what happened are so vital to a collective coming to terms with the past. It lets the truth serve as both a healing memory and a reminder about what to avoid as the future is written.

While encapsulated as a relatively straightforward advocacy doc (complete with QR code at the close), and ignoring some of the more complicated and controversial claims that have been made against Devi by some of her political opponents, there’s still a great deal to be gained from the film, particularly from international audiences hitherto unaware of what transpired in this region during this period.

Sadly, the fight for coming to terms with the scourge of rape during military conflict is hardly unique to this area, and the politicization of those acting in their own interests by ignoring the atrocities continues to this very day in relation to numerous other conflicts. Still, there’s much to admire about Devi’s drive to speak her truths to a wider audience, to serve as a leader encouraging others to speak of their own experiences, and to, in whatever way possible, make the history of this troubled time in Nepal’s vast history more complete, and work towards both reconciliation and potentially compensation for those affected.

The film may serve as a global call for this mission even though it directs its focus on this one story. Devi’s tale is powerful and profound for those both in her own country and around the world.

Devi screened at Hot Docs 2024.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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