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Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche is not your quintessential Buddhist spiritual master
  • BBS Bhutan

Rinpoche, in the newly revised FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) policy by the government the Bhutanese film industry was clubbed together with the media sector and listed in the negative category. The members of the industry have expressed their dissatisfaction. Do you think FDI should be allowed in the film industry?

I don’t know enough about the government’s new FDI policy to answer that question. But I think the government must have a good reason for deciding to include the Bhutanese film industry with the media sector. Film, television, radio and other media are powerful tools that can potentially sway and manipulate people, which the government probably wants to avoid. But that is also the very reason that government needs to pay close attention to ensuring proper support.

Maintaining the sovereignty and unique character of a nation depends on many factors. In this information age of ever faster paced technology, Bhutan simply doesn’t have any choice but to adapt to modern media and ways of thinking to preserve its unique character. The power of film, technology, and social media, including influences from outside, won’t go away but are here to stay, and they are growing rapidly. Our younger generations will definitely be affected by that.

I have met people who sneer and laugh at Bhutanese films for being too ‘Bollywood’ or ‘Hollywood’ in their style. But one could argue that the film industry in Bhutan has played a significant role in promoting Dzongkha development and other Bhutanese characteristics. In fact, I understand that Bollywood and Hollywood films are basically not shown in Thimphu cinemas, largely because Bhutanese audiences demand their own films, which keeps Bollywood and Hollywood films at bay.

I think government could take advantage of this Bhutanese-oriented proclivity and probably even invest in it. After all, financing does affect the quality of film and media, because inadequate funding frequently leaves film-makers no choice but to bow down to popular demand, which in turn can ruin excellence in artistic endeavour and expression. Sadly, as happens everywhere, Bhutan also suffers a lot from catering to the ‘lowest common denominator’.

I am sure Bhutanese recognise that there are many foundations and individuals who really support genuine human creativity without any political agenda. It would be a shame for a budding young Bhutanese film maker not to be able to express or realize his or her creativity due to a lack of the meagre funding required.

It’s important for Bhutanese to know that, just as we in Bhutan have a business community and people who enthusiastically love to contribute to religious activities, likewise in the west and around the world there are many people who really like to contribute to creative activity without any profit motive or political agenda. There are even websites like Crowdfunding and Kickstarter that help not just budding film-makers but many creative artists and inventors. If we Bhutanese were to allow such contributions, it would nurture young Bhutanese minds and their endeavours and pursuit of excellence.

If yes, how do you think the FDI would help in the production of good films, both mainstream commercial and art house? Is FDI the silver bullet?

Again, I don’t know enough about the FDI policy to comment specifically. But it’s worth noting that Korea and some European governments really support and even spearhead the production not only of films but of all kinds of art. I don’t know if our government has such plans or the means to support the arts. One also has to have some courage to do this.

Rinpoche, in most of your films you have collaborated with foreign production companies and professionals, what have you learnt and what do you think our film industry and filmmakers could learn?

As is obvious, most of my films are very obscure, independent, art house films. So the collaboration I had came mainly from people who enthusiastically support this kind of activity and who don’t manipulate it artistically.

It would be very different if I made a film funded by a major Hollywood or Bollywood production company. In fact, a film on the life of the Buddha would be a complete financial disaster, because a big production company would want Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt as the Buddha so that these big stars can get them their money back. But I for one would not want that, because if I make a film on the life of the Buddha, I will try my best to present and share what I think is most true and appropriate to what we know about the Buddha.

There is a lesson here not just for film-makers but for all people and for countries too – namely that beggars can’t be choosers, and that someone else does the choosing for you when you depend on them for money. That syndrome often ruins not only artistic endeavours but whatever people do – in education, economics, and everything else.

The Bhutanese film industry has been struggling for years and the little support from the government has not been enough to bolster its growth. Is it a deficiency in cultural growth (partly as in the understanding of film as an art) or is it technological deficiency or the problem of money?

Film is a relatively new phenomenon in our part of the world, and I’ve certainly raised eyebrows by making films. After all, films are so often associated with money, sex, violence, and drugs. In fact, when I was growing up, movies were seen as evil incarnate and our teachers told us they would destroy us. Maybe there was some truth in that.

People also assume that you make money making films. But with art house films, that is never the case. For those of us struggling to make more independent films, our only profit is making them, sharing them, and knowing they are being watched. However, even that is really difficult because there is not much demand for such art films. As much as we might sneer at Bollywood or Hollywood films, there is huge demand for them because they have all the ingredients we love – all the gestures, explosions, curves and choreography.

I don’t know how much understanding our government people have of film as an art. It seems to me that we are frantically trying to preserve our culture and past traditions, which of course is a great thing. But we also have to realize that it’s difficult to get young teenagers in Bhutan to listen to zhungdra rather than Eminem or Lady Gaga.

So the question is whether there is some vision here, and whether government can bolster the film industry in ways that promote our Bhutanese culture, tradition, and nuances. This is challenging both because seeing film as art is a new phenomenon, and because of our technological deficiencies that make this kind of cultural growth difficult.

Film has become one of the most dominant art forms in the world. Can Bhutan afford to ignore it?

Absolutely not. I am surprised that this question is even raised.

What does Bhutan need to do to make the country a film FDI destination?

This is a difficult one, and I still don’t really know how to answer such questions. In general, I feel that to make our country a film destination and to attract investment in film, we really need to love our own culture, tradition, nuances, and uniqueness, and not let that love be cocooned or bogged down by a narrow mind. On the contrary, this love for our traditional art, music, culture, and traditions should be hyped up using modern methods.

At the same time, I think we have to be very open-minded in recognizing that young Bhutanese are changing, not just in their minds but because they constantly face unavoidable situations where they have no choice but to change.

Let me give one example of how we are often forced to change. Whereas we used to build roofs with wooden planks, we now see ugly tin roofs everywhere in Bhutan, even though tin roofs never existed in Bhutan a hundred years ago. So these new roofs are definitely not part of our treasured and precious Bhutanese culture. But now tin roofs are mandatory and I have been told that they have become an essential ingredient in Bhutanese architecture and building.

The reason this happened is mostly economic. As well, if everyone became affluent and built giant houses using only wood planks, Bhutan would lose all its old trees. So we are forced to use tin roofs. I have often wondered why some Bhutanese contractor or engineer could not design a tin roof that at least looks like a traditional Bhutanese plank. That would be far better than the unpainted tin roofs that presently make all of Thimphu look like an upgraded refugee camp. In other words, modern methods could be creatively used to promote traditional forms.

How much is the renowned Buddhist spiritual master and the intellectual cultural commentator in you the filmmaker? What do you want to ultimately say as a filmmaker or as an artist?

I love watching film, but I don’t see myself making films all the time. I do have the ambition of making a film on the life of the Buddha. But beyond that, I also see film as a very important medium that artists can use to express meaningful things. People should think of film as a technology like a pen or typewriter that, with the right motivation, can express something meaningful. I don’t claim to have done that or contributed a lot through my films, or even had that intention, but I just wanted to make films.

That said, I have in fact been approached by many young people who are somewhat in awe of Buddhist teachers, icons, and surroundings, which they see as uptight and puritanical. So they approach me just out of relief that I’m doing something that’s not what they think normal Buddhists do. Many young people I meet in this way do develop a certain connection to the Buddhadharma, so I also can’t say that all my film endeavours have no meaning or purpose at all.

One of your favorite filmmakers, Andrei Tarkovsky said “Devoid of spirituality, art carries its own tragedy within it.” Why do you like his films (and you said Stalker is one of your favorite films)? Do you connect with his work spiritually?

I like Tarkovsky for his technique, his story telling, and his sheer guts in his choice of subject. Now I would define spirituality as looking at life from a different angle, without hope and fear but with a bird’s-eye view. Tarkovsky does that in a very Abrahamic and dualistic way, whereas my own Buddhist spiritual path is non-dual. At the same time duality and non-duality can be seen as two sides of one coin.

So from this perspective, it is quite interesting to see how Tarkovsky sometimes sees life as sacrifice. In Tarkovsky’s mind there may be something to sacrifice, while for a Buddhist, there may not even be a self to sacrifice.

You are known to the world as a Buddhist monk/master who shares a deeply passionate love affair with filmmaking. How do you draw the line between your passion and your Buddhist pursuits?

I have been asked this many times, and the question itself still puzzles me. As I said earlier, film-making is just another medium or tool. One can be a painter, writer or sculptor and still be a Buddhist. There is no conflict in that. In fact, they say that photography and film-making are simply painting with light. There are many historical accounts of great Buddhist practitioners and teachers who were artists, sculptors, carpenters, bridge builders, and popular composers.

I understand where this question comes from because, as I said earlier, film is something new in places like Bhutan and is still associated with things that are not necessarily holy. But that view is simply due to lack of information. One can often learn a lot about life watching films like Ozu’sTokyo Story.

Art is an extension of your ‘self’. As a filmmaker, how much does the ‘self’ – of being an incarnate lama, unconventional Buddhist master, among others – affects or influences your films?

As human beings we are so conditioned. In fact, the Buddha said we are a by-product of conditions. So in all situations, we affect our environment and others through the conditions in which we have been brought up, and I too am influenced by others with different conditions. I am sure that a bit of my conditioned self may manifest in my own endeavours, and that it may therefore also have some influence on my films.

The talk is, you will continue to make films until you perfect the art and become ready to shoot your epic film on the life of Buddha. Is this film a long way in the coming?

That is correct. That is my wish, but I try not to have too much expectation around this aspiration. While I have this wish, someone else may well go ahead and do it and may do a much better job than I would. If so, I would totally rejoice in that.

What makes you more Buddhist – as a filmmaker with films that reach a wide range of global audience or carrying on the tradition of your lineage in a more conventional manner? Have you had any moments of doubt (self doubt)?

Being a good Buddhist has nothing to do with choosing between being a film-maker and carrying out the tradition of teachings in a more conventional manner, It has to do with intention and motivation. I could be a better Buddhist making a film with pure intention than playing a conventional role with a non-spiritual motivation like wanting to be famous by collecting disciples and building large temples. Of those two, I would choose the former.

You are currently working on your next feature. It is said to be something on the theme of bardo, death and life, and lot of surrealism. What can we expect from your upcoming film?

Yes I am currently working on my next feature film, which is supposedly about identity and how we try to create it and lose it. Either effort makes us so insecure. In that way, the film has a bit of a bardo theme, because one of the quintessential elements of the bardo is lack of identity and therefore uncertainty.

‘What can people expect from my upcoming film?’ My answer is – ‘please, don’t expect too much but wish me luck.’