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Filming to begin in Akron for Bhutanese refugee story 'Rubber City'

Acclaimed Nepali actor Shailesh Mainali (right) will play the lead in "Rubber City," which begins production in Akron in February. Ankit Paudel (left) is cinematographer for the project, which is directed by Binod Paudel (no relation). [Kabir Bhatia / WKSU]
Kabir Bhatia

Next month, a group of filmmakers in Akron will shoot a drama inspired by the struggle of Bhutanese refugees. And it’s a story which could apply to immigrants from around the world.

Auditions for the film “Rubber City” were held in the Rubber City over the past few weekends. Not just actors, but singers and musicians, too. The film tells the story of three generations of Bhutanese immigrants who have settled in Akron and how they each find their identity in a new country. It’s the vision of writer-director Binod Paudel, an acclaimed filmmaker in his native Nepal. He helmed “Bulbul” – his country’s official entry for the Academy Awards in 2019.

“I'm from Nepal, but I've seen a lot of people came from Bhutan and they're struggling. It's not easy, actually. For example, all of a sudden you wake up in the morning and someone tells you that, 'This is not your country. Come on, go away.' That was the triggering point for me. I needed to tell this story.”

Akron’s Bhutanese and Nepali populations have exploded over the past decade, and Paudel was attracted to the city due to the large number of South Asians here.

"They came in here and they started giving life to the city. They started living their life and giving so many cultures. And that was the beautiful part that stays in our movie’s background. But at the same time, the main conflict would be these three people in one family and how they are going through."

The film “Rubber City” has roles for both native South Asians as well as people who grew up in the west. Sadia Saleem was born in Pakistan but spent much of her life in Canada. She lives in Hudson and auditioned for a part in the film. She says she’s learned a great deal about the struggle of Bhutanese refugees – and also how other communities have had different experiences when coming to the United States.

"I think it differs based on your circumstances, where you’re coming from, [or] how you look. For instance, Syrian refugees: They don’t come from the best conditions, but maybe their next generation is able to assimilate a little better because – physically – that can blend in a little more. It seems, from my understanding, that the Bhutanese [have] been dislocated for generations. So that has to have some sort of impact."

Writer-director Binod Paudel (center) helmed 2019's 'Bulbul,' the official entry to the Academy Awards from his native Nepal. He says he was drawn to Akron for its large Bhutanese community and also the 'texture' of the landscape left behind by the city's industrial past. Tom Crain of Shanti Farms (left) has helped Paudel connect with community leaders. [Kabir Bhatia / WKSU]

'One language in images'

Helping to market the film is someone who is not South Asian, and doesn’t speak Nepali. In the past, Lashila Howell has worked on projects for Cleveland City Councilman Basheer Jones. Now, she’s tackling something in another language – but she feels the message will still translate.

“It’s one language in images. People can look at it and see what it means. So you’re telling a story through it and [do] not have to use words.”

Prakash Naubag agrees. He came to the U.S. from Nepal a decade ago, and is helping with some of the film’s pre-production. He sums up what the film “Rubber City” will mean to South Asians in America.

“[With] this movie, we can find our story. Not just our story, my story," he said. "Every individual will speak, ‘That is my story!’”

Production on that story is underway, and Paudel says he’s recruited many volunteers to work alongside professional technical staff. After principal photography is completed, he’ll start raising the funds for processing and editing the footage into a finished product.

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