Gaetano Kazuo Maida was a founding director of Tricycle and producer/director of Peace Is Every Step, the film profile of Thich Nhat Hanh narrated by Ben Kingsley. Steven D. Goodman, Ph.D., is codirector of Asian and Comparative Studies at California Institute of Integral Studies and coeditor of Tibetan Buddhism: Reason and Revelation (SUNY Press, 1992). They spoke recently with Inquiring Mind about the Buddhist Film Society, an independent nonprofit educational organization. [The Buddhist Film Society is now called the Buddhist Film Foundation. See buddhistfilmfoundation.org.]
Inquiring Mind: What was your intention in starting the Buddhist Film Society?
Gaetano Maida: Film and image in our culture today is a dominant, primary way to reach people, particularly young people. Since people do not read as much as they used to, transformative ideas need to be offered through the medium of film. Inquiring Mind, Shambhala Sun and Tricycle are all wonderful publications, but they don’t really reach non-Buddhist audiences. We look at film as a potential “dharma door”; it can open the minds of people who would never cross the threshold of a meditation hall or attend a public lecture on dharma.
As the Buddhist Film Society, our main goal is to be a resource, serving filmmakers and educators as well as audiences. We plan to create international Buddhist film festivals in partnership with presenting institutions such as museums, universities and community organizations around the country. We will offer documentaries, films from the Third World, cartoons, even Hollywood releases.
Steven Goodman: As a Buddhist educator, one of the things I confront at both the undergraduate and graduate levels is an appallingly superficial knowledge of the wide range of Asian cultural traditions in general and Buddhist cultural traditions in particular. So one of my interests in working with the Buddhist Film Society is not only to find new audiences but to diversify the range of representations of what is called Buddhism. One of our target audiences, as Tano mentioned, is filmmakers, especially those in communities of practicing Buddhists, who want to echo their cultural values via film. For instance, I would like to expand the opportunity for groups of ethnic-based Buddhists—the Thais, the Tibetans, the Burmese—to represent themselves in films.
GM: We’re in contact with filmmakers in India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. We’re even in contact with a Buddhist television station that has just started in Amsterdam, and they have government money to air exclusively Buddhist content for several hours a day. We are going to cosponsor a film festival with them. We are also in contact with people in Russia, Nepal and Bhutan, all of whom are making films, have access to films, or teach film studies in the universities. Americans haven’t heard what they have to say, and we believe that one of the best ways to bridge the cultural gap is through film and video.
IM: How will you determine what films to show at a “Buddhist” film festival?
GM: We’re pitching a very large tent that allows for an enormous amount of diversity, without becoming so open that it has no meaning. For instance, there’s a wonderful film made in China called The Shower, a very small-budget production. The story revolves around a family that runs a bathhouse in a small, marginalized city neighborhood. The drama concerns a father and his sons, one who goes to work in the big city and another who’s slightly developmentally challenged and stays home. The film is essentially about compassion, and every frame of it seems to evoke, inspire and describe compassion. There’s no mention of Buddhism or Buddha, but the film is a jewel. By the end of it I was in tears. I’d be delighted if people could see compassion as it is portrayed in this powerful, accessible little movie, but hardly anyone saw it, and it disappeared from view.
IM: Have you found many films that have very obvious Buddhist content or themes?
GM: There is a film called The Reincarnation of Kensur Rinpoche, which is one of the best films made about the Tibetan search for reincarnated masters, or tulkus. It was BBC-funded and filmed on location by Tibetan filmmakers. It is a stunning piece of work and a cogent and sincere exploration of the idea of reincarnation, with discussions about things such as the bardos, the “in-between” states. But it has never been shown in the United States.
Another film that is not so obviously Buddhist, but one that we want more people to see, is Ethan Hawke’s modern Hamlet, which includes a cameo by Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. Also, as Hamlet is doing the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, he’s looking at a television screen and watching a clip of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explaining the term “interbeing.”
SG: There are several obvious Buddhist films that were seen by many sangha members, which we now want to make available to wider audiences—such as the film Raising the Ashes, about the retreat at Auschwitz led by Zen priest Bernie Glassman. Tano’s film Peace Is Every Step is another. I showed this biography of Thich Nhat Hanh at a conference on saints and religion I was attending in Jerusalem during a period of frequent suicide bombings. Many people were in tears. One elderly gentleman with a thick accent got up and said, speaking of Thich Nhat Hanh, “He’s such a wonderful guy. Why did he have to be a monk? Why didn’t he have children?” That’s a Jewish cultural response to a Buddhist ideal. [Laughter] Afterward, many people seemed to remember Thich Nhat Hanh saying, “The miracle is not to walk on water but to walk mindfully on this earth.”
IM: There have been a couple of recent films set in Tibet. The French film Himalaya was very popular. There was also a very positive response in this country to the Tibetan film The Cup, about monks who are soccer fans. That one would obviously fit into a Buddhist film festival.
SG: Many people might not realize that some of the actors who appear in that film are highly regarded in the spiritual communities of Tibet and Bhutan. If you watch that film with Tibetans or Bhutanese you will hear them responding to a lot of in-jokes and references that Western audiences typically miss.
GM: We are also going to offer Hollywood-produced features and television shows you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see from a Buddhist Film Society. For instance, about ten years ago a film called Jacob’s Ladder was released starring Tim Robbins. It was a post-Vietnam War, traumatic-stress-syndrome-type drama, written by a Buddhist practitioner named Bruce Joel Rubin. He based it on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with the entire film taking place in the bardo between the dying and the actual death of the protagonist. While that film is intrinsically Buddhist, the words Buddha, dharma or bardo don’t appear in it. It is a powerful, visceral experience of the bardo, brilliantly executed and with stunning effects.
IM: The Dalai Lama says, “I’m not promoting Buddhism; I’m promoting human values.” With that as a guideline, you might include any number of films.
GM: At a recent San Francisco Zen Center film festival they showed Fearless and Groundhog Day.
IM: If you choose to show a Hollywood comedy like Groundhog Day at a Buddhist film festival, do you think it will take on a different meaning?
SG: Of course. Context is everything.
GM: We’re also going to show films that are critical of Buddhist communities. We have already identified a few that discuss the Sri Lankan war and the corruption in the Thai Buddhist community. The Buddhist Film Society is not going to be a reverential film resource.
SG: We also want to offer experimental films that change the way we perceive reality, such as the films of Stan Brackidge or Jordan Belson. In order to overcome his concern with death, Stan Brackidge did a documentary at the Philadelphia morgue in which he takes you through an autopsy. He called it The Art of Seeing with Your Own Eye because you see the corpse, the body, with your own eye. Many years ago Jordan Belson did a film called Bardo. Arguably, the preeminent bardo medium is film because you’re always cutting from one scene to another—there are always gaps, you know. Bardo means “gap.”
GM: Talking about film and Buddhism, you could say that samsara is a projection of mind and that film is a projection of the filmmaker’s mind. It is also a collaboration with the audience members who are seeing that projection, because we all bring our own eyes to it. When we see a film, each of us is projecting onto the screen as much as the filmmaker is projecting onto the screen.
SG: We are all filmmakers. The only question is, Who has control of the imagery? If our thoughts are like films, you want to make sure you have some real good editing. [Laughter] So you might think of mindfulness as the art of making mental films that foster wisdom and compassion. Film is arguably the closest medium to how the mind works. At least that’s the argument we’re putting forth.
GM: I’m a filmmaker because I discern that to create a film is nothing more than to represent what goes on in my mind. I’m projecting a movie right now, and you’re in it. Film is such an integral part of our consciousness that for us to cede the territory to the moneymakers or the pornographers is a mistake.
SG: But we don’t just want to make people feel good. Part of the tradition we draw on is that of Artaud and Brecht, which tries to break through the illusion of safety and complacency. Good film can be dangerous or existentially relevant. Good film can effect a change in the way we view our lives and what is important.
GM: Which reminds me of another film we want to present, and that is Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog. It stars Forrest Whittaker as a modern hit man who lives by the Hagakure code of the 14th-century Bushido Buddhists. The film even breaks occasionally to offer a black screen with a single quote from this samurai code, which tells you how this man thinks and lives. Even though he’s a killer, he has no ego. He is merely a vehicle, and in the end he gives up his life. It’s an extremely interesting film, with an incredible hip-hop soundtrack. To present this film in a Buddhist Film Festival might be very controversial, but we’re interested in having audiences see it. Perhaps through this film they will want to explore what Bushido is all about, and maybe they will discover what Zen is all about. We believe that there are entire communities of people for whom this film would be a potential dharma door, even though its message is nihilistic in the classic sense of the term.
IM: You mentioned that the Buddhist Film Society is also interested in presenting children’s movies and cartoons. Are there many cartoons with Buddhist themes or values?
GM: Absolutely, especially in Asia, where animation is relatively inexpensive. Asians have made several animated films of the life of the Buddha and have animated the Jatakas, tales of the Buddha’s previous lives. The Japanese have a whole series of children’s programs about the life of the Buddha. Believe it or not, we also want to offer specific segments of the animated TV shows King of the Hill and The Simpsons. Somebody recently sent me an episode from King of the Hill that revolves around the possibility that one of the key characters, an adolescent boy in a typical American family, is a tulku, an incarnation of a recently deceased Tibetan lama. The kid doesn’t have a clue and asks, “What is a lama?” After they tell him what a lama is, he spends the rest of the show acting like one—being compassionate, contemplative, patient. By the end of a week, however, he’s in a panic, because he really doesn’t want to be a tulku, he just wants to have sex with the girl next door.
When they give him the test for a tulku, it is very authentically depicted and resembles what actually happened when the Dalai Lama was recognized. As part of his test, the child Dalai Lama touched but didn’t pick up an object that had been in the household of the previous Dalai Lama but didn’t belong to him. He then picked up a second object that had, in fact, belonged to the Dalai Lama. The kid in this TV show does the same thing, but in the opposite way: he touches but doesn’t pick up the object that belonged to the predecessor, and then he picks up the object that was simply in the household of the predecessor. So the lama administering the test lets the kid go. The show introduced a very foreign Buddhist culture, the idea of reincarnation, and a Tibetan teacher who had gravitas and compassion. All this in a 22-minute cartoon on American television—it was a brilliant piece of work.
IM: One of the most widespread uses of Buddhist images in film or video must be in advertisements.
GM: Yes. In fact, we are compiling an entire program of commercials from Europe, Asia and the U. S. that appropriate Buddhist imagery to promote products.
IM: So you will be doing some production as well as distribution?
GM: A little, perhaps, but not much. The Buddhist Film Society is a resource. We hope to program film festivals, present forums, and develop and maintain an archival website. We already have a book in development called Eye of the Heart: Buddhism on Film. At our festivals, which we will present with museums or universities as partners, we will hold seminars that will include not only filmmakers but Buddhist teachers.
On the website we’ll play the role of distributor/retailer of a lot of material that is very hard to get in this country. If you find a film that you love, and you want your friends to see it, come to us. You can buy them, or we’ll link you to the source. Hopefully, the films will then become part of an ongoing conversation, not just a momentary event. We envision the films leading people to the central issues of Buddhadharma, which, in the end, is really about how we live our lives.
Visit the Buddhist Film Foundation [buddhistfilmfoundation.org] to learn more about the International Buddhist Film Festival, view film trailers and find DVDs of Buddhist films.