Bhutanese Lamas, unlike Thai Buddhist monks, can watch movies. Not only that, Liza Linklater discovers in hills far from Hollywood, a revered Lama is making ’em.
Remember the film The Cup? Released to great acclaim at the Cannes, Toronto and Vancouver film festivals, among others, in 1999, it was the tale of a group of monk novices who’d do anything to get a television so they can watch The World Cup soccer matches.
The Cup was actually made in India by a revered Buddhist lama from Bhutan, H.E. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, also known as the writer/director Khyentse Norbu. He is currently shooting his second film, which is the first international motion picture to be filmed in the remote, mountainous Kingdom of Bhutan.
One rainy afternoon in mid-October I treaded slowly down a slippery mountainside trail to meet up with the filmmaker. Khyentse Norbu, the “talent” (three “actors”) and I sat around a fire keeping warm and discussing the film, while the rest of the crew sipped hot coffee nearby. There are 112 crew members working on the film and 16 of these are foreigners from Canada, Australia, the United States, Germany and India. Only five or six main actors perform in the film.
Before arriving at the film location high on the mountain near Cheli La, my companion had told me how beloved Khyentse Norbu is by the people of Bhutan and this was certainly evident even around the set.
Called Travellers and Magicians it will be ready for distribution around June or July and he hopes to screen it at the Toronto Film Festival. Looking rather splendid with a brown Chinese silk jacket over his maroon robe and an orange baseball-style cap on his head, he proceeded to tell me that the film is actually two stories in one.
One is a modern on-the-road story that Khyentse Norbu wrote. It is based on how “we human beings think that life is always greener on the other side (in this case, of the mountain). A young Bhutanese man wishes to go to the United States and he starts to travel from east Bhutan to the west when he meets a monk. The monk then tells a Buddhist fable based on fantasy and reality that forms the second story.
Forty-one-year-old Khyentse Norbu became interested in filmmaking when he was studying and teaching Buddhist philosophy in London. “Instead of studying I always sneaked out to watch movies. I thought it was the medium that I must try to adopt because in this century it is the most popular medium. I could be sitting in a monastery and teaching but how many people are going to listen to me. I could write a book but who has time to read, but when you make a film I think a lot of people will watch,” he concludes.
“I’m not saying that my intention for making a film is always a spiritual one. It could be driven by love of art, for the power of communication, but hopefully I could turn it into a good cause,” he continues.
Filming will continue for 55 days, or at most 12 weeks, in Bhutan and editing will take place in Australia. Most of the equipment comes from Australia because Super 16mm equipment is very rare. “I could only afford Super 16 and the nearest and cheapest place is Australia. Every two days we send film out to Bangkok to be developed. It’s very nerve-racking as one never knows who is going to open my exposed film cans,” says the director.
“I’m working with the same people I worked with the last time. The first film managed to create some seed money for this. This time I’m purely dependent on the distributors because my first film became unexpectedly successful, so the distributors think that this one might work too.”
“My first film was quite simple. I wanted to keep this story as a second one and I wanted to shoot it here. Bhutan is such a beautiful setting,” he says.
Deki Yangzom, the beautiful 25-year-old woman in the fantasy part of the film, admits she never acted before. “I work in an office in the Royal Monetary Authority – the Central Bank – in Thimphu, the capital, and I’m on earned leave. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing on my leave. In spite of his eminent personality, I can work comfortably with Rinpoche, he’s down-to-earth and a good director.” Neither of the other two actors had ever acted before either.
After finishing production on The Cup, the director went away on retreat for two six-month stints — one in Paro, Bhutan and the other in India. “Then I had a very solitary, strict one near Vancouver. The whole point of going on retreat is not to think. Retreat is actually an exercise to learn to love boredom and that’s difficult. It happens after about 14 days; but for those 14 days you can go crazy. Then you can get used to it,” he remarks.
Besides these retreats, Khyentse Norbu is actively involved with teaching. He has schools in east Bhutan and India to run, and he conducts seminars around the world. But because of his love of film and filmmaking we can all look forward to seeing his next vision on the screen very soon.