Oct. 16/08: Aired on PBS program, P.O.V.,
just a few weeks before the historic US election. Soldiers
of Conscience (2007) Produced by Gary Weimberger and Catherine Ryan,
with funding from sources as disparate as Joan Baez and the US military, this
powerful documentary examines the the struggle of eight US soldiers coming to
terms with the cruelty to, and the killing of, fellow human beings. Ryan
points out that, contrary to what many believe, war is not "part of human
nature." This is corroborated by studies showing that, without the
indoctrination / training required to produce soldiers, 75% of people would not
pull a trigger even if their own lives were being threatened. The position
of those who see the war in "Eye-rak" as a righteous endeavour is also presented
sympathetically, although not as powerfully.
Oct 16 & 18/08: On Doc Zone, on
Canada's public network (CBC), The US vs Omar Khadr gives us a
look at the cruel conditions of detainees inside the US prison at Guantanamo
Bay, Cuba, where 22-year old Canadian citizen, Omar Khadr, is still being
detained. He was 16 years old at the time of his incarceration at the
insistence of US military authorities.
"A detailed re-creation of the firefight in
Afghanistan in July 2002 and interviews with eyewitnesses to the battle shows
that the U.S. Government put out a demonstrably false version of what took place
that day. Some evidence that supported Omar's claims of innocence was
systematically withheld from defense lawyers, while other exculpatory evidence
was altered to make him look guilty. There is new stunning evidence which
shows that American soldiers were committing war crimes in the aftermath of the
battle by "shooting the wounded," and that the victim was actually killed by
"Friendly Fire." His wounds and medical records indicate that he was hit
with the blast of an American grenade that Omar could not have thrown.
Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism
Recalling a Buddha: Memories of
HH Karmapa XVI (Gregg Eller. Tendrel Films, 2006) 2
hours, 19 minutes.
The Karmapa is the head of the Karma Kagyu lineage
of the Kagyu denomination, the 3rd oldest of the 4 Tibetan Buddhist
denominations. In the 11th-century, the one who established the
Karma Kagyu lineage received that designation posthumously because he gave solid
proof that he was truly The Master of Karma. By leaving behind
written details of the circumstances of his next birth, he demonstrated the
extraordinary ability of determining the future. That unique quality is
characteristic of all who bear the title, Karmapa. He not merely incarnates from lifetime to
subsequent lifetime, but he creates the circumstances whereby he appears
in this world. The instructions, which some might prefer to call a
"prediction," direct his dharma heirs to the place and the family where he will
next be born.
Other great masters, male and female, might embody
the continuity of consciousness of a former master, but not to the same degree
of precision as Karmapa. Indeed, the designation of "incarnate master" (Tib.
tulku) or "a living Buddha," the expression as rendered into English from
Chinese, is common to all Tibetan (and some other) traditions now, but it took
root only following the impact of the fact that the verified heir to the First Karmapa
had been demonstrated.
fully comprehend Gregg Eller's title for this work, which was released to honour
the 25th anniversary of the 16th Karmapa's passing, you need to grasp fully the
implications of my explanation. The term "Buddha" is not being used merely
as a figure of speech -- a metaphoric way of saying that subject of the film was an
impressively wise and compassionate person, nor even in the way it is used in
the Chinese phrase.
Karmapa XVI (1924-1981,) like all those who bore the
title prior to him, embodied all the qualities and
abilities of a Buddha. Even while his physical body was being cremated, he
continued to manifest these abilities. To allay any doubt, here is a photo
of the bone relic.
25 years ago, there were no digital media; no little cell phone
cameras. What visual recordings there are of the 16th Karmapa are very
few. There are probably quite a number of still photos, however it would
have been virtually impossible to try and track them all down. A few of them are extraordinary,
such as one in particular that was taken during the Ceremony of the Black
Crown. It mysteriously lacks a central figure -- it is as if we are looking
through Karmapa's body, which appears only as a haze of light. Similarly, there are some
sound recordings of the voice of Karmapa that were made during the few teachings
given in the West. However, the only one I ever heard was not of good
quality and we can hardly hear the voice of His Holiness, whose body was already
All this is to say that we are deeply indebted to
Greg Eller for having undertaken this difficult and complex task.
Not only did he manage to persuade people to share whatever materials they had,
but there must also have been some refusals that were ungracious and frustrating.
The interviews required extensive and undoubtedly exhausting travel compounded
by bureaucratic hassles.
Also, the teaching and retreat schedules of those
willing to recall their memories of the 16th Karmapa for us -- Their
Eminences Tai Situ, Gyaltap and Shamar. and the great lamas Thrangu Rinpoche and
Tenga Tulku Rinpoche, not to mention Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, Traleg Rinpoche,
Ponlop Rinpoche, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Khandro Rinpoche, are never very
permitting of unscheduled time for extended interviews.
Among the others
who kindly participated were Ani Tenzin Palmo (notable for having been the
second Western woman to receive monastic vows from the 16th Karmapa,) Gene Smith
(founder of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center "who single-handedly
spearheaded the preservation of thousands of Tibetan texts") and Ngodrup T.
Burkhar (a noted Tibetan-English translator of the 17th Karmapa,) Tendzin Parsons, Dr. Mitchell Levy (who attended HH during
his final illness,) Dr. Judith Lieff (who shares memories of the
relationship between Chogyam Trungpa R. and HH) and the American preferring to
be known as He Who Stands Alone, who tells us about the 16th Karmapa's establishment of KTD,
seat of the Karma Kagyu in America.
Certain post-production aspects of this video record
lack finesse. I did not enjoy the slow pace of the breathy feminine
voice-over. It was especially discordant where the topic at hand is the
brutality of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. A more serious and forceful
expression would certainly have been more appropriate. Also, the choice of
incidental music I found particularly unsuitable, even grating. Here also
I would prefer something more powerful, perhaps a traditional Khampa (east
Tibetan) melody. Nevertheless and especially given the constraints
of budget and time, such flaws as these are relatively unimportant.
Recalling a Buddha leaves people who
never had the experience of being in the presence of the 16th Karmapa, whether
they are Buddhist or not, with feelings of regret. And those whose karma
afforded them a brief glimpse of HH during the confusion and complexity of the
1970s (eminently represented in the film by a hip radio announcement of the
Black Crown Ceremony) will find in this DVD the answers to some of their
questions about the significance of what they witnessed nearly 30 years ago.
All viewers will be happy to know that, in response to their desire, as a result
of their devotion, and motivated by the the needs of all sentient beings who are
bound in a cycle of suffering, this Buddha has already been successfully
recalled. He is manifest in the world again in the form of HH the 17th
the movie (Neten Chokling, 2004.)
Himalaya: Generational struggle
among traders of the Dolpo region.
The Saltmen of Tibet: Fascinating
reportage of what was likely the last salt caravan from the lake
known as Heart of Karmapa.
Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy
"A must see for Buddhist practitioners of all schools" Peter Oyloe, CYN
"Unprecedented insight into the ancient protection ritual A Beautiful
Ornament." "A meditative film experience" Sophia Conroy.
Sky Over Tibet
- 25 Mar 2005, "Such sweet sorrow: Wisconsin Film Festival
brings latest news from Tibet," by Kent Williams for Isthmus
What Remains of Us, Tibet: Land of Snows, Roof of the World,
our last lost horizon. Has any country ever cast such a powerful spell
over us? The terrain alone is enough to make an armchair tourist’s mouth
water — snow-capped mountains, juniper forests, fields of barley. Then
there are the Tibetans themselves, a profoundly spiritual people who, when
they’re not sipping yak-butter tea, are clasping their hands together in
prayer. Or so it seems in our movie-fed imaginations, where Buddhist
monks in saffron robes smile at the camera on their path to enlightenment.
Anyone who’s been following the news for the last 50 years or so knows that
the situation in Tibet is actually quite different. Since "liberating"
the country in 1950, China has systematically destroyed a culture that was
once the envy of the world. Tibet is literally being wiped off the map.
An estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have lost their lives to the Chinese
occupation; meanwhile, millions of Han Chinese have moved in and taken over.
Today, Tibetans aren’t allowed to fly their flag. They aren’t allowed to
display pictures of the Dalai Lama, who’s spent the last 46 years in
self-imposed exile. They aren’t even allowed to say "I am a Tibetan" without
risk of imprisonment or worse. Not for nothing have these legendarily
peaceful people been called "the baby seals of the human rights movement." As
such, they’ve garnered a fair amount of attention in the West, thanks in part
to such simpatico celebrities as Richard Gere and the Beastie Boys. But the
occasional Free Tibet bumper sticker, the odd remark by Gere at the Oscars,
does not a movement make, and most of us remain woefully ignorant of what it’s
like to live in Tibet today.
Short of buying a plane ticket and checking the place out, perhaps the best
way to get a good look at what’s going on over there is through movies, and
the Wisconsin Film Festival, which begins next Thursday, has put together a
very interesting slate of documentaries and features. Here are short reviews
of nearly all of them.
Wheel of Time: You can take the Tibetan out of Tibet, but you can’t
take the Tibet out of the Tibetan. That’s the message I received from
Werner Herzog’s meditative documentary, which offers a behind-the-scenes
account of one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred rituals. The Kalachakra
Initiation, during which monks are ordained, is a days-long ceremony that
draws adherents from all over the world. And it culminates with the
destruction of one of those elaborate sand mandalas, a symbol for the
impermanence of all things. That Tibetan Buddhism itself might not last
forever seems unlikely when you witness the religious fervor on display,
including a prostrating monk who’s spent 3½ years getting to the event held in
2002 near the Dalai Lama’s home in India. And by "getting to the event," I
mean taking a step, then lying down on his stomach, then getting up and taking
another step, then lying down on his stomach again, then getting up, ad
infinitum. If that doesn’t clarify your thoughts, nothing will.
We’re No Monks: As the title to this first feature film by USC Film
School grad Pema Dhondup indicates, not every Tibetan is a Buddhist monk. And
of those Tibetans who’ve grown up in exile, crammed into the Indian city of
McLeod Ganj, Tibet itself appears to be losing its hold. "Praying for all
sentient beings is outdated," says one of the young men in Dhondup’s film.
Bored, restless and more than a little confused about what to do with their
lives, these societal outcasts will look utterly familiar to anyone who’s gone
through a rebellious phase. But they have the added frustration of dealing
with an authoritarian cop who wants to handle the Tibetan-youth problem before
there’s actually a problem. Somehow, this leads to a plot to kidnap a Chinese
diplomat in Delhi, and although Dhondup doesn’t try to show us how refugees
can turn into terrorists, he does warn us that, with nothing to lose, an
entire generation of Tibetans may forswear the Dalai Lama’s "middle path" for
something more extreme.
Daughters of Everest: Meanwhile, back in Nepal, a group of Tibetan
women were reaching the height of achievement — specifically, Mount Everest,
the scaling of which requires equal parts luck, skill and sheer determination. Sherpa men have long helped Westerners get to the top of the world’s tallest
mountain; Sir Edmund Hilary might not have made it without one. But until
quite recently, no Sherpa woman had reached the summit and lived to tell about
it. Now that’s changed, thanks to the four women featured in this moving
documentary by Sapana Sakya and Ramyata Limpu. Drawn from various walks of
life, they took on the challenge of climbing Everest not "because it’s there"
but because they wanted to increase their prospects in a country that’s not
exactly teeming with them. And a challenge it was, as the four-woman team
became a three-woman team, then . . . well, I don’t want to spoil the
suspense. But kudos to Sakya and Limpu for capturing this historic expedition
Travellers and Magicians: After Seven Years in Tibet and
Kundun, we’re used to exploring this exotic part of the world vicariously,
through Western eyes. But an indigenous cinema has been emerging in the
region, led by Khyentse Norbu, whose 2000 film, The Cup, used the sport
of soccer to show us that Tibetan Buddhist monks don’t just sit around
chanting all day. An incarnate lama himself, Norbu uses an ancient
system of divination to decide everything from who will play which role to
where to put the camera, and the result is a simple yet subtly poetic style.
His new work, Travellers and Magicians, the first feature shot entirely in
Bhutan, presents some of the most gorgeous vistas ever put on film.
Ironically, the movie’s about a guy who would prefer a change of scenery.
Bored out of his mind and dreaming of life in the fast lane, a government
officer in a remote mountain village sets off for America, armed only with a boombox and an I?NY T-shirt.
He doesn’t get very far, meeting up with an apple seller, a rice-paper
maker and his daughter, plus a monk who tells a once-upon-a-time story that
takes up fully half of the movie. If every journey begins with a single step,
Travellers and Magicians proves that it’s all you really need to feel
like you’ve been somewhere.
What Remains of Us: I wasn’t able to get a copy of Delamu, a
documentary from Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang that follows a caravan of
pack-mules as it winds its way along the Tea Horse Road, an ancient route
through China, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and India. This time, the mules are
carrying construction materials for a road that could wipe out a way of life
that reaches back thousands of years. And speaking of ways of life being wiped
out, I was able to see What Remains of Us, a documentary that manages
to be both heart-breaking and heart-warming. Bearing a videotaped message from
the Dalai Lama, a woman of Tibetan origin named Kalsang Dolma, who’d grown up
in Montreal, went to Tibet for the first time and surreptitiously played the
tape for various groups of people, most of whom hadn’t seen or heard the Dalai
Lama in years, if ever. The response, invariably, is a mixture of extreme joy
and extreme sorrow.
"Nobody trusts anybody," one of them says, reinforcing the idea that Tibet
has become "the biggest prison in the world." But the Dalai Lama’s message is
one of hope — of continuing to press for Tibet’s freedom and of holding on to
the Tibetan way of life whether there’s a free Tibet or not. Wise or naïve?
Who knows? But what’s so valuable about these films is that they show us how
complex Tibet’s situation is and how simply it could be resolved if the path
to enlightenment weren’t cluttered with stones.
More, and More About, Movies on the Tibetan Experience
What Remains of Us (also released in French.)
- April 8/05, "Dalai Lama Direct" a review by Guy Dixon
for The Globe and Mail:
What Remains of Us ****½ Directed and written by François
Prévost and Hugo Latulippe
Between 1996 and 2004, Canadian filmmakers François Prévost and Hugo
Latulippe, along with Kalsang Dolma, who is from a Tibetan refugee family,
smuggled a small video player into Tibet and privately played an exclusive
message from the Dalai Lama to Tibetans in their homes, nomadic tents and
That act alone bears almost indescribable weight.
Tibetans have been cut off from the Dalai Lama since China took over
the Buddhist kingdom in 1950. They aren't allowed to publicly worship the
spiritual-national leader -- or at best, their worship is treated as
something to be closely monitored and repressed when necessary. Watching a
tape of the Dalai Lama risks imprisonment. Even selling his picture on the
streets of Lhasa, the capital city, is forbidden.
Imagine then, under this oppression, the elation of suddenly seeing him
talking directly to you on videotape. Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhists
wouldn't look the Dalai Lama in the eye, so strong is their reverence for
him as a divine being on the Earth. But here, on tape, he is simply
talking to his fellow Tibetans with a message of hope.
For many, viewing the five-minute tape was the first time they had ever
seen him. What Remains of Us, in turn, watches the
Tibetans watching the Dalai Lama. All listen intently, often with their
hands together in prayer. Some prostrate themselves in front of the tiny
digital player. Some bow to it at the end of the message. Afterward, many
are moved beyond words, their voices filled with elation and sadness. It's
difficult to imagine anyone not being moved to the core by these scenes.
And just as the Dalai Lama's message is only minutes long, the
filmmakers give the impression that they have only 76 minutes to convince
us, the viewers, to save Tibet.
As Dolma says halfway through the film, many Tibetans feel that
they lost their country because they didn't pray enough. But perhaps they
lost their country because all they did was pray, she adds. That's
the true perspective of the film: It wants to do something more than just
reflect on the situation. At times, it can't help revealing a simmering
As a result, the film's dogmatic qualities threaten to get in the
way of its raw power. The only Chinese shown are inept-looking
soldiers or classless tourists taking snapshots of holy sites or, in one
incredible scene, dancing in a blaring disco while praying Tibetans
prostrate themselves outside in the dark. The only counterbalancing view
comes from the Dalai Lama's own words when he notes that many Chinese are
ignorant of Tibetans' suffering because of official propaganda.
But the evidence of suffering is inescapable: There's the
transformation of Lhasa into a kind of maximum-security city, with a
sprawling prison camp which, if it were anywhere else in the world, would
likely spark widespread condemnation by other world powers.
Or there are the 1.2 million Tibetans -- one in five -- who have
gone missing and are believed to have been killed during the
occupation. There's also the Dalai Lama's own telegram to the United
Nations sent in 1950, describing the genocide and policies of
sterilization inflicted on Tibetans by Mao's army.
In addition, the film shows footage from 1988 of the brutal suppression
of a demonstration of monks. And there's barely time left to touch on the
widespread destruction of sacred sites and Buddhist texts by the Chinese
and the environmental destruction and deforestation of the land.
Perhaps worst of all is the anguish and lost hope among people who so
devoutly cling to Buddhist tenants of compassion, impermanence and
Beyond all this, the filmmakers still manage to capture the beauty
of Tibet with the crystalline clarity of digital video. They do this
not on a grand scale, although there are incredible shots of
majestic mountain peaks, many of which are considered sacred in
Tibet. Mostly, they do it with intimate close-ups. Because the Tibetans
knowingly risk prosecution by agreeing to being filmed, the camera
doesn't step back enough to reveal much about their locations or other
identifying details, apart from their faces.
When the documentary was originally shown last year, special
arrangements were made to monitor audiences, particularly during
large film festival screenings, and to search bags, in an
effort to prevent anyone from bringing in a video camera to record the
film. That level of security has since calmed. The filmmakers have
apparently stayed in contact with some of the Tibetans and no problems
have been reported. The security has softened to the point of simply
keeping tabs on the audience and, at times, warning people at
the door about the security concerns.
What the filmmakers have done, however, goes beyond these
controversies, or even traditional filmmaking criteria. Just the act
of getting the Dalai Lama's message to Tibetans earns them the highest
praise. The fact that they also managed to relay the reactions and
emotions of the Tibetans back to us seems, in its small way,
Other Films on Buddhist Themes
- Are you wondering whether your
teacher really cares about you or not? I recommend
Words of My Perfect Teacher, about the student-mentor
relationship in the Vajrayana.
- Enlightenment Guaranteed (German/English s-t) Two
brothers visit a Japanese Zen monastery for a month.
- La Vallee (The
Valley Obscured by Clouds) Barbet Schroeder, 1972.
Reviewer M. Wilmington: "It's the quest itself -- not the goal -- that is everything."
At one point, Hermine relates to Viviane, who was overcome by jealousy, an
anecdote to show that genuine love is never secret:
Eshun was a beautiful nun who was participating in a course of study at a
Zen monastery along with 20 monks. One evening she receives a note
from one of the monks in which he expresses his love for her and requests an
assignation. The next morning after the teachings, just before the
sangha is about to leave the hall, she stands, looks at him and says, "If
you really love me, then come and embrace me right now, here, in front of
everyone." ~ Muju (13th C) Shaseki-shu (Collection of Stone and
In case you doubt the Buddhist relevance, at the end of the film, one of the
women is wearing a Tibetan hat and you would swear the scene was taking place in
the foothills of the Himalayas instead of in New Guinea.
- A Chinese Ghost Story, III (1991): This, the 3rd in a
series by Tsui Hark, comprises themes and characters of the first 2 but it
takes place 100 years after the first (1987) story. Now the victim is
a young Buddhist monk.
This is not the animated film. Try to get a DVD version because
the VHS version is of very poor quality. Mandarin/Cantonese and English
- Kwaidan (1965) especially the 2nd tale concerning Hoichi the
- Spirited Away (Miyazaki, 2001) Animation. Attachment
through confusion, fear, anger, and greed.
- The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001) starring Nicole
Kidman. Absolute and relative truth.
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