The 16th National Film Awards has come in for high controversy with a film director Karma Lhatrul Rinpoche, filing a complaint of corruption and collusion against the Bhutan Film Association (BFA) with the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC).
The controversy centers on the selection of the best films category, whose top three winners received Nu 1 mn each from the government as the Prime Minister’s award, and also on the best director category.
The ACC complaint is on the changing of film award criteria which allegedly enabled films of the BFA board directors to win.
Meanwhile, some BFA members, who are supporting the complainant, also raised the issue of a jury member being related to the BFA Vice President and board member, who also was the best director winner in the same movie that also got the best movie award.
The criteria change
Director Karma Lhatrul Rinpoche, in the letter to ACC said, “BFA executives and board directors, including its President and Vice President, had changed the criteria-with the explicit aim to benefit the board directors who are themselves filmmakers and had their own films submitted for the competition.”
The director said that before submitting a film for the national awards every producer by or before 10th January 2017 signed a legal undertaking with legal stamps which binds both the BFA and the producer.
In the legal document the criteria set was that the Best Film award would go to a movie which won most of the seven major categories which are Best Director, Cinematography, Visual Editor, Background Score, Screen Writer, Lead Actor Male and Lead Actor Female. The director said that this meant that each category was equal.
Similarly the Best Director would go to the film who got the maximum overall scoring points on the above seven categories.
The director’s movie, ‘Tshorwa- The Inner call’ won three of the original seven categories in Cinematography, Visual Editor and Background Score and his film also won in three other categories of Best sound Editor, Lighting and Playback singer female. His movie, as a result, effectively won the most number of awards on the night.
However, the director said that to his surprise on award night far from winning best film and best director his film was not even nominated for these two main awards.
The director said that instead he was surprised to see ‘Serga Mathang’ win the best film followed by ‘Hum Chewi Zamling,’ as the runner up, with both getting Nu 1 mn each as the Prime Minister’s award.
In the letter to ACC, the director said that the producer of the two films, Pema Tshering is a board director while the best director winner for ‘Serga Mathang’, Kesang P. Jigme is a board member and the Vice President of BFA.
After the Losar break, during which the NFA office was closed, the film director followed up with the NFA, but on not being able to meet the board he gave a letter asking for a written clarification failing which he would submit the issue to other authorities.
The director said that it was only then that the NFA shared a minutes of the meeting with him, where he found that unknown to him and other BFA members on 21st January 2017 the film criteria had been changed by the board.
The main change was that the earlier equal weightage in the best film category was changed to a point system with 30% for Best Director, 20% for screenplay or writer, 25% for culture and Dzongkha and 5 % each for best actors, cinematography, editor and background score. The best film would be the one who got the highest points.
Similarly the best director would be the one who got the highest total points from the eight categories.
Other changes were that an eight criteria of Culture and Dzongkha had been added along with sound designer and the best female and male actor was combined into one.
In the letter to the ACC the director says that the changed criteria adversely affected the chances of the film. He said that if BFA had not changed the criteria, his film, under the legally signed criteria, would win either best director or film or even both awards.
Rigzang, a Cinematographer and industry member who is one of the BFA members who supports the director’s complaint said, “There was no information given on the change in criteria when all the BFA members should have been informed. I feel it is corruption that the board made such changes without our knowledge.” He said even after the decision the board had not shared the minutes of the meeting and kept the decision hidden.
Two film producers who did not want to be named at this stage also backed up the director’s complaint and said that there was a lot of in transparency and conflict of interest in the whole process.
The director himself also asked why such a change was made without informing the award participants and later even when the decision was made on why it was not shared with them.
BFA members also questioned how the Vice President, Kesang P. Jigme’s first cousin Thukten Yeshi was allowed to become a juror on the most influential of the three jury committees.
Thukten was one of the three jurors on the Direction and Performance committee that adjudicated over the Best Director (30%), Screenplay writer (20%), Actor (5%) which controlled 55 percent of the 100 points for both the best film and best director category. The remaining points were decided by two other committees which were Technical and Sound (20%) and Youth and Culture (25%).
Though not making a direct charge against Thukten, in the absence of information on the individual judge’s score card, the BFA members said it is an obvious case of conflict of interest especially since Kesang P. Jigme won best director and his film also got the best film.
BFA members also said it was the same juror who as a consultant for BFA originally came up with the changed criteria.
The BFA President Mila Tobgay and Executive Director (ED) Yeshi Dorji both said that the film jury members are selected not by the board but by the BFA secretariat led by the ED. The President said it was only endorsed by the board.
Mila Tobgay also said that the BFA board is against any conflict of interest and they do not allow any family relations on the jury, but when the list came up before the board nobody made an issue with the list of jurors and so it was approved.
BFA members meanwhile questioned why the Vice President and other board members did not cite a conflict of interest when the name came up, and how did it happen that the first cousin of the VP landed up in the most influential committee to decide the best film and director.
BFA members alleged that the juror in question works closely with the BFA and keeps visiting its office, and so it is hard to believe that the ED and the Board did not know of the family ties. The ED, himself, claimed that he heard of family ties only after the awards were over.
The marks from the jury members are tabulated by the ED unlike in other international awards where an independent accounting firm does it. To check the marks a member has to pay Nu 7,500 and even then a member can see only his marks and not that of others.
The BFA President, ED, VP and Board Director Pema Tshering all said that in a meeting with the producers, the issue of changing the criteria was discussed prior to the board meeting where it was changed.
Here the complainant director said that he was present in the meeting with some of his colleagues and the main focus of the meeting was on sharing of the Nu 1 mn per film award. He said that the criteria issue was only mentioned in the passing by saying that a Dzongkha category was being added. He said that the meeting did not go into the details of the percentage system or the fact that the board would change it. He said even when the board changed it later it was not communicated to the award participants and BFA members.
The President, VP and ED brought up the issue that due to the lack of qualified judges in the country the BFA had to use the list of people they had with them and even they hesitated to be jurors given past controversies.
The President while acknowledging that board member’s films had won he said that any decision is not taken by one or two individuals but by a larger group of eight board members. Denying accusations of institutional intransparency and lack of accountability he said all major decisions were put on its website and Facebook and the BFA was audited by the RAA.
On the criteria the President and the ED both said that the criteria signed by the award participants was the old one but it was changed once there was confirmation that the Nu 3 mn would be granted by the government. The President claimed that the new criteria had been submitted to the Home Minister in 2016 itself while seeking funding support for the BFA awards.
The ED, however, admitted that this new criteria also had provisions like sending out scripts to foreign jurors and even getting foreign jurors but this part of the criteria could not be implemented.
VP and board director responds
Board Director Pema Tshering who won Nu 2 mn through his two films in the first and second category of best films said that there was no corruption of any sort and everything was done as per rules and regulations. He said it is natural that people who did not win will be unhappy. He said everybody knew his two films were among the five films in the best film category but he had no inkling that he would win and so he was genuinely surprised to win the first and second place. Pema surmised that the complainant though winning in four of the new categories of five marks each must not have got enough scores in the more scoring categories.
The VP Kesang P. Jigme talking about his first cousin on the jury said that it was the BFA secretariat who selected the jurors and the board only confirmed it. He said that if his first cousin is a conflict of interest then it should also apply to others as some jurors and award participants are friends or work together and so conflict of interest could be from there too. He said knowing the past award controversies his cousin would never favour him.
The complainant director had also alleged that ‘Serga Mathang’ had a song which was copied from a Tibetan song but here the VP said that most films anyhow copy Hindi, Tibetan, Korean and other songs. He said this is not an issue since his film did not win in the song category. The VP also denied any corruption and wrong doing saying that those making such allegations have to prove it.
The juror responds
The Juror in question Thukten Yeshi said that currently he is the only person who has a Masters degree in film from Australia. He said that from 2011 he has been helping the film industry by doing a lot of free work for BFA, from writing letters to proposals to the point that even his wife questioned him. He said that he worked on the national film policy and also the film commission as a national consultant for Denmark.
He said to preserve his neutrality he is not even a BFA member. Thukten said last year the BFA President said that the government may give Nu 3 mn and so he again for free came up with a proposal along with the scoring system that he researched on.
He said that he was very disappointed that BFA members could accuse him. The juror said that he was reluctant to become a jury member but the BFA President encouraged him to become one. He said he is open to any scrutiny and they can even take a look at his markings. He claimed that he has nothing to hide.