Updates

DIFF, Burning and The Sweet Requiem

Welcome to our revamped website! Our son, Mila, overhauled the website after being constantly harried by us to make minor changes on the older version. It’s now more elegant, user-friendly and easier to maintain. Thank you Mila! And here’s a shameless plug in case you need a website designed: Mila Samdub

We’re taking advantage of its launch to post a long-overdue update.

DIFF 2015 autorickshaws
DIFF 2015 Autorickshaws on duty

After the successful conclusion of the 4th edition of DIFF in early November last year, we turned our focus to our first solo art exhibition at Khoj Studios in New Delhi. Held over most of December, this was the first time several of our video installations were presented in one venue and under a broad thematic rubric. It comprised a selection of works that investigates both Tibet’s ongoing political struggle and the transformations that we see in the Himalayan region that we live in. The title of the exhibition – Burning Against the Dying of the Light – referred to the centrepiece of the show, a new multimedia installation which examines and contextualizes the politics of protest in Tibet, especially in their latest manifestation – self-immolations.

Wheel close-up 2
Close-up of The Wheel of Light and Darkness

The show was well received by both the public and the art world and was widely covered by the media. Thank you Khoj, for supporting our work and organising the show.

Burning Khoj team
With the Khoj team and our Production Assistant Vitor Carvalho

One component of the Burning installation, a piece entitled Last Words, was invited to the Dhaka Art Summit as part of a group exhibition – Mining Warm Data – curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt. The work consists of five facsimiles of five last messages written by the self-immolators in Tibet, along with their English translations. When the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh saw Last Words, he demanded that the work be removed immediately or he would have the entire summit shut down. Given China’s economic clout in Bangladesh, the organisers were in a quandary and we finally decided to have the offending work covered up rather than removed entirely, as demanded. The fiasco went viral and generated a huge amount of publicity, and ended up having the opposite effect of what the Chinese Ambassador had intended. As art critic Rosalyn D’Mello commented in the Huffington Post: “Expectedly, though possibly to the dismay of the Chinese Ambassador, despite being positioned as a compromise, the paper shroud that veils each individual photo and text constituting Last Words has subversively endowed the work with an even more provocative aura.” Nevertheless, the incident served as a reminder of how China seeks to control the discourse on Tibet, wherever and however it manifests itself.

Last words
Last Words at Khoj
Last Words (Covered)
Last Words covered up at the Dhaka Art Summit

Burning Against the Dying of the Light has been invited by curator Natasha Ginwala to show as part of the Contour Biennale in the town of Mechelen in March 2017. We are working to evolve some of the concepts that we were exploring in this work and to refashion the central kinetic sculpture that the exhibition hinges around. We will also present a new video work that looks specifically at the legacy of the Singing Nuns of Drapchi Prison, a number of whom have relocated to Belgium, and their connection to the current phase of self-immolation protests in Tibet.

Mechelen
With Natasha Ginwala and fellow artists in Mechelen

Meanwhile, we have been slowly but determinedly pushing ahead with our feature film, The Sweet Requiem. After we got into the Drishyam-Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab in Goa in March last year, the script has undergone several major revisions and we feel that it is now as good as it has ever been. In October we were in Busan as part of the Asian Project Market and in November in Goa at the Film Bazaar.

T&R at APM (close)
Pitching at the Asian Project Market in Busan
With Shrihari at Film Bazaar
With Producer Shrihari Sathe at Film Bazaar, Goa

We had numerous promising meetings but none that turned into something concrete. We began to understand that trying to get financing for a Tibetan-language film, particularly in the context of a climate where China exerts an inordinate amount of influence globally, even in the cultural sphere, was a much more difficult proposition than we had bargained for. But we remain undeterred and are very fortunate to have New York-based producer Shrihari Sathe as part of our team. Together we are stubbornly exploring alternative sources of funding so that we can get the film made. If you have any fund-raising ideas or want to support the project in any way, please get in touch. You can also make a tax deductible donation on our website. At this stage of the game, every little bit helps!

The Sweet Requiem

That’s it for the moment. Don’t forget that the 5th edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival will take place from 3 to 6 November. Do try and make it!

With best wishes from Dharamshala –

Ritu and Tenzing

25 years of White Crane Films and the launch of our new feature

Dear friends,

It’s hard to believe this year is the 25th anniversary of White Crane Films! It does not seem so long ago, at least in our minds, that we started the company. We were living in London at the time, struggling indie filmmakers barely keeping afloat in the turbulent waters of the British television industry. We had just embarked upon our first major documentary, The Reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche, and White Crane Films was born as a result.

Khensur Rinpoche

And what a ride it has been since then! Exhilarating, frustrating, challenging, depressing, but always deeply rewarding and fulfilling, we cannot imagine any another direction our lives could have taken. And two and a half decades later, that journey continues with undimmed passion and pleasure. So, it seems entirely appropriate that we celebrate this anniversary, not by looking backwards, but by looking forward to fresh challenges and uncharted territories.

It is therefore with great excitement that we would like to announce the launch of our second feature film, The Sweet Requiem. Ever since we made our first feature, Dreaming Lhasa, more than 10 years ago, we have wanted to make another dramatic feature. The experience of working on Dreaming Lhasa opened our eyes to a whole new way of telling stories and at the same time taught us the complexities of working with non-professional actors and a larger crew. We were keen to put this into practice but got caught up in a number of very involving documentary films and then, for the past three years, with launching and running the Dharamshala International Film Festival. But through it all, we have been working steadily on the script of The Sweet Requiem.

This is a project that has had a long gestation period, having undergone several changes of character and location before arriving at this point. The essential story, however, has remained unchanged since we were first motivated to tackle the subject. The initial inspiration for the film comes from the incident in September 2006 on the 5,800-metre Nangpala Pass on the Tibet-Nepal border. Chinese border guards opened fire on a group of Tibetans attempting to escape to India and shot dead a 17-year-old nun and injured several others. This brutal killing, which was captured on video by a Romanian mountain climber, raised many questions in our minds: Who were these escapees and what was their journey like? Why, after nearly 50 years of Chinese occupation, were Tibetans still risking their lives to escape to India? And why were so many of them children? And what happened to them after they made it to India?

After China relaxed some of its policies in Tibet in the early eighties, a second wave of Tibetan refugees started pouring into India. Among them was an unusually high proportion of young children who were brought or sent by their families to India to receive a Tibetan education in one of the exile schools. Often making a hazardous trek across the Himalayas, the exact number of those that perished on that journey is not known but it is certain that many did not survive. These children, more often than not, never returned home to their families. In many cases, they lost contact with them completely. In a cruel twist of fate, they were both exiled and orphaned.

Meanwhile, the larger political situation in Tibet has continued to simmer at a critical point. Since 2009, more than 130 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest against Chinese rule, demanding freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama to his homeland. Despite the desperation and magnitude of these actions, the world remains largely ignorant of what is transpiring in Tibet. But these events continue to impact the lives of all Tibetans.

The Sweet Requiem, then, is an attempt to weave together these disparate strands of the current Tibetan situation – both in exile and in Tibet – through an intimate and personal story that is part psycho-political thriller and part escape drama. At the same time, it is an exploration of the themes of exile, memory and guilt, and the unexpected consequences of the choices we make in life. It is a tale of suffering and forgiving, of deep inner anguish and the desperate need of the exile to find redemption and closure. In this, the story transcends its specific context and touches upon universal concerns.

Last month, we were exceptionally fortunate to have our script selected for the inaugural Drishyam-Sundance Institute Screenwriters’ Lab in Goa. The four-day session with seasoned scriptwriters and directors from India and abroad was an intense and rewarding experience. With the feedback, suggestions and comments we received from our advisors, we are ready to take the script to another level and are currently working on yet another draft.

Sundance Lab

At the same time, over the past few months, with the help of a small team, we have been actively scouting for locations and casting and auditioning potential actors. These have been entirely through social media and word-of-mouth. All our applicants are non-professional but we have nevertheless been very impressed with the talent and enthusiasm on display, and have selected many of our key characters already.

Under any circumstances, making an independent film is a mammoth undertaking but making one on a contemporary Tibetan subject, in Tibetan and with an all-Tibetan cast is an especially daunting challenge. There is no exile Tibetan film industry to speak of, distribution channels for Tibetan films are non-existent, and there are no domestic funding bodies or government agencies to fall back on. Funding can only come from individual supporters and a limited pool of international donor organisations, for which competition is fierce. We are currently trying to raise funds and remain optimistic.

If you haven’t already, please like our Facebook page, stay in touch, follow our adventures and spread the word.

If you are interested in supporting the film, getting involved in some way, or helping us to raise funds, please get in touch: info@thesweetrequiem.com. As always, we appreciate your support.

And finally, the dates for the Dharamshala International Film Festival this year are 5-8 November 2015. Join us there for great movies and a good time in the mountains!

An Update from the 3rd Dharamshala International Film Festival

DIFF 2014

For the past three years, Ritu and I seem to have taken an inadvertent sabbatical from filmmaking as our efforts have been diverted, first, to getting the Dharamshala International Film Festival off the ground, and then to nurturing it and ensuring its survival. We’ve just come out of the other side of the third edition of the festival (30 October to 2 November) and I’m happy to report that it is growing from strength to strength and establishing itself as one of India’s leading independent film festivals.

This year, we had visitors from literally all over the country who came specifically to attend DIFF and watch films. Our more than 60 volunteers comprised a veritable rainbow coalition of nationalities, races and religions. We had 15 filmmakers attending and presenting their films, including five who came from Mongolia, Finland and Switzerland.

For more information on the festival, please check out: http://diff.co.in

Now that the dust has settled, Ritu and me are all set to end our sabbatical and move headlong into our feature film project – The Sweet Requiem. But more on that in the next update.

In the meantime, I’m reposting a blog I wrote on the DIFF website about how Ritu and I went through the process of selecting films:

As co-directors and curators of Dharamshala International Film Festival, we are often asked what our criteria are for choosing the films we do. The answer is not quite so straightforward. A wide range of factors, both subjective and external, some in our control and others not, influences the selection process.

When Ritu and I set out to establish the Dharamshala International Film Festival, our brief to ourselves was clear: curate a selection of the best independent films that we could lay our hands on, with no regard to subject, genre or style. “Best”, of course, is a highly subjective term and I suppose what we actually meant was to choose films that we ourselves enjoyed and felt were important or broke new ground. As far as it was logistically possible, we would make this selection from the entire spectrum of global independent cinema (the definition of “independent” in this context is also a contentious issue but that is for another post). Our rationale was simple: we wanted to expose the local community in Dharamshala to high quality alternative cinema from around the world that they would normally never have the opportunity of watching. And as far as possible, we would try and invite as many filmmakers as we could to attend the festival.

But as we discovered, setting such a broad and loosely defined brief for ourselves came with its own challenges. First, there was the question of how to decide which films to consider when we did not have a submission process. In order to set some eligibility limit, we decided to only look at films that were less than two years old. An arbitrary cut-off, yes, but we had to start somewhere! Films that we had seen and liked in film festivals that we had recently attended were automatically included in the long list. But our main source of potential titles came from our network of contacts from around the world: filmmakers, producers, festival programmers, sales agents, distribution companies, etc., who we solicited for recommendations. We also kept abreast with what other festivals were showing and which films were making waves. And although we did not accept submissions, unsolicited films did make their way to us and on a few occasions, we were glad they did!

On a practical front, since Dharamshala has no cinemas and we were limited to screening from DVDs in the first year, and Blu-ray or movie files from the second, we could only consider films that were available on these formats. This immediately ruled out a lot of newer films, which were only accessible on DCPs. And then, given our limited resources, we could hardly afford to pay screening fees, which meant that we were often at the mercy of a sales agent’s discretion. Surprisingly most sales agents were thoughtful and generous but there were always films that we could not even consider because we could not afford the screening fee.

Having gradually built up a pool of films to select from, we now had to sit down and actually watch them. This was certainly the most fun part of the job but it was also excruciating at times. Given that most screeners these days are sent as online links, a big frustration was in not being able to seamlessly stream them. Movie after movie would get stuck multiple times, buffer endlessly, and then have to be aborted when all else failed. Sometimes, a single film would take us several hours to watch. While this definitely did not make for optimal viewing conditions, we accepted it as part of our challenge of running an international film festival in the mountains.

The really difficult part, though, was to make the final selections, a painful process of whittling down the long list to a short list to an even shorter list. The sheer volume of good films on offer made choosing between them all the more demanding. For the most part, Ritu and me were in agreement over what we liked and didn’t but every now and again, a film would pop up that had us completely at loggerheads. In such cases, we reached a compromise based on how intensely one of us liked or didn’t like the film! (By the way, this is a method that has stood us in good stead over the years while making films.)

Cutting down from our very long short list of films to the actual number we could programme – around 12 fiction features and 12 documentary features – had us tearing out our hair in despair. There were just so many films we wanted to show. The final selection also often came down to factors that we could not have foreseen. For example, films focusing on particular subjects or issues would organically evolve during the viewing process and make their way into the short list. These films, then, would take precedence when it came to making hard decisions as they naturally coalesced into special focus sections. This year’s spotlight on films from the Middle East is something we definitely did not set out to actively programme. Another important consideration for us was whether a filmmaker could attend or not, especially if we had raised the funds to cover travel expenses.

For us personally, an interesting by-product of the selection process (besides getting to watch so many good films and keep a finger on the pulse of current cinematic trends) was to understand more clearly our own likes, dislikes and biases. We instinctively gravitated towards films that had a deeply personal stamp on them, films where the authorial voice was clearly articulated. We were also drawn to films that dealt with issues and subjects that we were ourselves involved in or close to – political conflict, marginalized communities, questions of cultural identity, the intersection of art and politics. At the same time, our fondness for quirky, offbeat movies and genre films also asserted itself on the choices we made.

One conclusion that we have reached over the past three years is that contrary to industry doomsayers proclaiming the death of independent cinema, there is, in fact, an abundance of good films being made out there. As far as we can tell, indie films are well and alive and finding ever more creative ways to tell their stories and adapt to changing circumstances. This is encouraging news to us, both as filmmakers and as film festival programmers.

Looking ahead to 2014

A belated Happy New Year!

As we begin this new year, we are looking ahead to a number of exciting projects.

First off is the launch of our long-planned and much delayed follow up to our maiden feature film, Dreaming Lhasa. For some years now, Tenzing has been working on a script and after many false starts, several different versions and countless revisions, it is almost ready now.

The Sweet Requiem (Tibetan: གདུང་བའི་དབྱངས་སྙན།) is a suspense drama about a young Tibetan woman in Delhi who unexpectedly encounters a figure from her past and is forced to confront the consequences of a tragic event that she witnessed as a child.

We have just started the process of raising finances for the film and although this is never an easy task with no guarantee of quick success, we are determined to get it off the ground. We hope to begin production early next year. More details will be forthcoming and we will shortly be putting out a casting call.

On other fronts, we will be doing a month’s residency in San Francisco from the end of February at the invitation of our old associates, Center for Asian American Media (CAAM). Two of our older films, Dreaming Lhasa and The Sun Behind the Clouds will screen at CAAMFest (13-24 March) as part of the Pacific Film Archive’s “Committed Cinema” series. We will also be screening several of our other films and participating in discussions around them at events organised by UC Berkeley, California College of Arts, the Blum Center and others. We will post more details as and when the dates firm up.

We are already gearing up for the third edition of DIFF 2014. This year, we will continue to build on the groundwork laid by the first two editions by learning from our experiences, streamlining the organizational and logistical process, and of course, striving to bring to Dharamshala the best of indie films from India and around the world along with their filmmakers. Please sign on to DIFF’s facebook page for updates.

And finally, let’s not forget the continuing struggle of our sisters and brothers in Tibet as they stand up to China’s determined and ruthless offensive to marginalize and silence them. Let’s redouble our efforts to work on their behalf by doing everything we can to publicize their plight and the deteriorating situation in Tibet.

Thank you all again for your support and interest in our work.

A Year On

It’s been a year since we last posted an update. In the meantime, a lot of things have happened, including a serious attack on our website, which took us down for a while. But thanks to our friends at Srijan Technologies and our new webmaster, Tseten Dolkar, we are back in action.

ayearon

In October, When Hari Got Married had its world premiere at Films From the South in Oslo. We had sold out shows and a surprisingly enthusiastic audience response. An extra show was added to the three scheduled ones. Screenings at DOK Leipzig and our very own Dharamshala International Film Festival followed. Hari, Suman and baby Anjali were present at the packed screening in Dharamshala, where the film was greeted by non-stop laughter from beginning to end. When Hari and family took to the stage for the Q&A there was thunderous applause. Asked whether Anjali would have an arranged marriage, both Hari and Suman, much to the delight of the audience, replied emphatically that she would be free to choose her partner!

Hari-with-wife-and-baby-at-screening-of-Ritu-Sarin-and-Tenzing-Sonams-When-Hari-Got-Married-1

Since then the film has screened at several international film festivals, including IDFA Amsterdam; the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), Goa; One World Film Festival, Prague; CAAMfest San Francisco; Jeonju International Film Festival, South Korea; the New York Indian Film Festival; and the New Taipei City Film Festival, Taiwan. When Hari Got Married is now slated for broadcast on PBS as part of the Global Voices series. The first broadcast is scheduled for Sunday, 16 June 2013.

For years, we had talked about doing something to bring contemporary art and cinema to Dharamshala. Last year, finally, we set up White Crane Arts & Media, a non-profit trust dedicated to promoting contemporary art, cinema and independent media practices in the Himalayan region. Our first two projects were the Dharamshala International Artists’ Workshop and the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF).

8171959955_59a823b035_b

The artists’ workshop was conducted in Dharamshala from 20th October to 1st November in collaboration with Delhi-based Khoj International Artists’ Association. 13 India-based and international artists, including two local Tibetan artists, participated in what turned out to be an immensely fruitful and rewarding meeting of creative minds. The works that came out of the workshop were exhibited at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and at various site-specific locations around Dharamshala and coincided with the opening of the Dharamshala International Film Festival, which took place from 1st to 4th November.

Asif-Kapadia-Director-Senna-addressing-the-audience-at-his-Master-Class-1

In its first edition, DIFF showcased 26 of the best contemporary Indian and international films, including features, documentaries and shorts. The aim was not only to bring quality independent films to the mountains but to promote and encourage local filmmaking talent. With this in mind, filmmakers from India and abroad were invited to present their films and participate in a range of masterclasses and panel discussions. In the event, DIFF was a huge success, far surpassing our wildest dreams. It is now set to be an annual event.

The Dharamshala International Artists’ Workshop and the inaugural edition of DIFF would not have been possible without the support of numerous organisations and individuals. Chief among them were: the Prince Claus Fund, the Netherlands; Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna; the Himachal Pradesh Government’s Department of Tourism; the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, New York; Isdell Foundation, New York; Sanjiv Sharma; and Jim Forster.

We were also exceptionally fortunate to have a dedicated, multi-tasking team helping us who ensured that everything went without a hitch (or at least appeared to go off without a hitch!). Special thanks to Wen, Torty, Anto, Jampa, Pratyush, Oona, Shaistha, Divya, David, Mila and our many volunteers.

Now, we are hard at work preparing for the next edition of DIFF, which will take place from 24th to 27th October this year. Torty (Victoria Conner) is our festival producer and we hope to make this an even more amazing festival with some very special guests and films.

The White Cranes remain committed, excited and eager to break new pathways! More in the next update.

Film Screenings at the Ravenna Festival 2012

Ravenna Festival d’essai
Focus on Tibet

The dramatic historical, political and cultural identity issues of the Tibetan diaspora will be documented and reflected upon in a series of four documentaries and a feature film made over the last 15 years by independent filmmakers Ritu Sarin (India) and Tenzing Sonam (Tibet), screened alongside the Scorsese “classic”, Kundun. They will tell of Tibet’s stubborn resistance to Chinese domination and its high toll in human lives, but also of the omni-present aura of spirituality and devotion for the Dalai Lama pervading the country since times of old. The two directors will exceptionally meet the audience and present their work at the closing of the season.

Calendar of screenings:

Thu, 3rd May
Dreaming Lhasa
(2005, directed by Ritu Sarin e Tenzing Sonam, 90 min)

Mon, 7th May
Kundun
(1997, directed by Martin Scorsese, 134 min)

Mon, 14th May
The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom
(2009, directed by Ritu Sarin e Tenzing Sonam, 79 min)

Mon, 21st May – double bill
The Reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche
(1991, directed by Ritu Sarin e Tenzing Sonam, 62 min)

The Thread of Karma
(2007, directed by Ritu Sarin e Tenzing Sonam, 52 min)

Mon, 28th May
The directors meet the audience

The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet
(1998, directed by Ritu Sarin e Tenzing Sonam, 50 min)

All screenings will be at 9 pm at Corso’s Cinema, Ravenna, Italy

Mud Stone Slate Bamboo & the Engadin Art Talks

 

The picture postcard Romansh village of Zuoz, high in the Swiss Alps was the unlikely venue of the Engadin Art Talks, which was held on the weekend of 27th August.

zuoz

We were here at the invitation of Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Co-Director of London’s Serpentine Gallery and one of the directors of the event. Our brief was vague. This year’s talks was called Mapping the Alps, although as far as we knew, we were free to present anything that was somehow connected to mountains and architecture.

tara

Earlier this year, while spending time at our home in Sidhpur near Dharamsala, we were preoccupied with building a small home for our cow, Tara. We had decided to build the house in the local style, using mud, stone, slate and bamboo. Working with a small team of artisans, Ritu took charge of the design and oversaw the construction. Watching the process unfold was a fascinating experience and we decided to document it on video. From the beginning we were taken by the meditative quality of the work – the focus of the stone-cutters, the making of mud bricks, the measured laying of river stones, the artful of splitting of bamboo. There was a sense that man and material were one, that the structure slowly emerging out of the ground was organic and a part of the landscape.

Shubh Karan shaping stonesWe understood how even something as basic and simple as a cow house was imbued with centuries of tradition and wisdom, and began to appreciate the natural aesthetics of a building that is in harmony with its surroundings. This seemed all the more significant given the rapid decline in traditional architecture in the face of a ubiquitous and characterless explosion of brick-and-cement structures.

River StonesIt took three months to build the cow house. We filmed several hours of footage from which we decided to edit a 15-minute rough cut to show at the Engadin Art talks as part of our presentation.

St. Moritz Art Masters 2011 (c)SAM / Alexandra Pauli

Hans Ulrich and co-director Beatrix Ruf of the Zurich Kunsthalle had gathered an interesting and eclectic mix of people. We were particularly thrilled to meet Hamish Fulton, the English “walking” artist who had over the years made a series of art walks across mountains and countries, including in Tibet. Hamish turned out to be a true Tibet supporter, knowledgeable about the current situation and constantly highlighting it through his work.

hamish fulton

Others included the American artist Lawrence Weiner, Berlin-based Iranian artist Nairy Baghramanian, filmmaker and artist Sarah Morris, and the provocative New York-based Lebanese artist Walid Raad, along with the architects Gianni Pettena, Andrea Deplazes and Peter Zumthor.

peter zumthor

The reaction to Mud Stone Slate Bamboo was more positive than we could have expected and the screening generated an interesting Q&A session, much of which turned on the question of how traditional architectural techniques can be adapted to a modern context. Our presentation was followed by Andrea Deplazes who described the process of building the ultra high-tech and environmentally friendly Monte Rosa hut in the Alps near Zermatt; a more perfect and fascinating counterpoint to our no-tech cow house would be hard to imagine!

fresh snowfall

For two days we talked, ate, drank, and talked some more, beguiled by the fairy-tale beauty of Zuoz and its surroundings, locked, for a brief moment, in a bubble where art, architecture, landscape and intellectual stimulation were all that mattered. And then we went our own ways.

Now it is back to the grinding reality of Delhi…and the editing suite.

Return to Kalmykia

In 1991, Ritu and I had the exceptional good fortune of being able to travel with the Dalai Lama as he visited the Soviet Buddhist regions of Buryatia, Kalmykia and Aginsky. Our job was to document this historic visit on video. We were part of a small and intimate entourage, crisscrossing the Soviet empire in Aeroflot’s no-frills, long distance Tupolevs and Ilyushins, and covering smaller distances by twin-rotored helicopters. The Soviet Union was fast unravelling, and the situation was desperate: we could tell by the on-board catering – a slice of bread and a chunk of dubious salami on an eight-hour flight. One consequence of the momentous events overtaking the country was the revival of religious practice after decades of suppression. Wherever the Dalai Lama went, he was greeted by masses of people, almost hysterical in their emotional welcome, desperate to receive teachings, and to rediscover their connection with their spiritual heritage. Incredibly, through all the years of darkness they had kept alive this link, tenuous, transformed and barely recognizable but still very much there. The Dalai Lama gave teachings and initiations, in stadiums and hippodromes, and the crowds came, eager for spiritual succour, happy just to see him and receive his blessings.

HHDL-Kalmykia-1

Among the Dalai Lama’s entourage was Telo Rinpoche, an 18-year-old lama from Drepung Monastery in South India. He was of Kalmyk origin, born in Philadephia and sent to India to become a monk at the age of six. The Dalai Lama later recognised him as the reincarnation of the famous Mongolian lama, Delowa Hutuktu (also known as Diluv Khutagt), who was himself the reincarnation of the great Indian master, Tilopa. I had heard about the Kalmyks before I actually went to their homeland. My family’s root lama, Zorgey Rinpoche, the reincarnation of my great-uncle, had been brought to Kumbum Monastery from Inner Mongolia and then sent to Drepung Monastery in Lhasa for further studies. He escaped to India soon after the Chinese invasion of 1950 and eventually made his way to New Jersey where he served a small émigré Kalmyk community as their resident lama. Delowa Hutuktu had also spent his final years among them. When I first went to America in 1979, Zorgey Rinpoche still maintained close ties with the American Kalmyks and I visited their temple in New Jersey and met several of its members. I also knew that a famous Kalmyk lama, Geshe Wangyal, had not only been instrumental in helping the CIA develop a Tibetan version of the Morse Code in the late 50s, but had also been the first important Tibetan Buddhist teacher in the West, the guru of such luminaries as Robert Thurman and Jeffrey Hopkins. But like most people who knew something about the Kalmyks, I thought they were Mongolians and had absolutely no idea of how fascinating their history was.

The first thing I realized as we flew south from Moscow to Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, was that it was at least a thousand miles from Mongolia. The Kalmyks were originally a Mongolian tribe from the southern steppes of Siberia, who migrated westwards in the 17th century and eventually settled around the mouth of the River Volga, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, in what was, and still is, European Russia. In return for guarding its southern flanks, the Kalmyks were incorporated into the Russian Empire as a Khanate and for over for two centuries, until the Second World War, they fulfilled their obligation, integrating effectively into the Tsar’s fighting forces. Like most Mongolians, the Kalmyks were staunch followers of Tibetan Buddhism and their presence in southern Russia created the unlikely scenario of a Buddhist republic in Europe. For two hundred years, until the advent of communism, Kalmyk monks kept alive their connection to Tibet by making the incredibly long and hazardous journey to Lhasa to study at one of its three great Gelugpa monasteries.

photo-of-old-Kalmyk-khurul-temple

The establishment of the Soviet Union brought about unimaginable suffering on the Kalmyks. Stalin proscribed the practice of Buddhism in the early 1930s. As in Tibet some decades later, monks were killed, forcibly defrocked or sent to Siberia, and all of Kalmykia’s monasteries and temples were destroyed. During the Second World War, the Nazis briefly occupied Kamykia during their campaign in southern Russia, which culminated with their defeat at the battle of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in 1943. Stalin immediately deported the entire Kalmyk population of about 100,000 in cattle trucks to Siberia as punishment for having ‘collaborated’ with the Nazis. Thousands perished during the journey. The remaining Kalmyks were scattered in small pockets across Siberia, with no link to their homeland, their religion, their traditions, or even to each other. When they were finally allowed to return to Kalmykia in 1957, their population had dwindled to about 60,000. In their absence, their homes had been taken over by Russians and other ethnic groups. By this time, the majority had almost forgotten its native language, lost touch with its traditions, and had no overt contact with Buddhism for nearly three decades. Nonetheless, their sense of identity as a people remained strong and they set about rebuilding their lives. The practice of Buddhism, though, was to remain underground for another thirty years. But when the Soviet Union began to collapse in the early 90s, the Kalmyks were ready to reclaim their heritage, and it was at this critical period that the Dalai Lama visited Kalmykia for the first time.

I remember vividly the fervour with which the Kalmyks greeted the Dalai Lama on his first visit. Wherever he went, people flung themselves at his feet, literally crying with happiness. Day after day, they packed the hippodrome in Elista to listen to his teachings, which were translated into Russian. How much they understood was hard to know, but at the end of the teachings, the crowd mobbed the stage, scrabbling to get some memento of his visit. They fought for the flowers that decorated the stage, and they grabbed at the precious pills that were distributed but when we interviewed some of them later, they asked us what they should do with them!

The young Telo Rinpoche’s appearance in Kalmykia in the company of the Dalai Lama galvanised the community. It was as if he was their Messiah, sent especially to help them in their hour of need. At the time, he was more Tibetan than anything else and Kalmykia was as alien a land to him as it was for me. The Kalmyks appealed to him to return and help them revive their religion and rebuild their temples. The next year found him back in Kalmykia, elevated to the position of Minister of Religion and given the title of Shadjin Lama, the head lama of the Kalmyks. We followed him soon after, commissioned by the BBC to make a film about him.

Telo-Rinpoche

Russia in the immediate post Soviet-era was a grim and scary place. The Dalai Lama’s representative in Moscow, Nawang Rabgyal, had his office-cum-residence in a gigantic hotel complex where we were almost robbed in our room in the middle of the night. Elista, the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, was an even sadder place, a provincial Soviet town of concrete blocks and nothing much else, set in the treeless steppes of southern Russia. Telo Rinpoche, then all of 20 years old, had a huge office in the Kalmyk White House, a personal interpreter and an official limousine. But his dreams of building a khurul – a Buddhist temple – were being stymied by an intractable and impenetrable Soviet-era bureaucracy, and exacerbated by a language barrier and a lack of understanding of the local culture. Even as we were shooting the film, he called it quits and left Kalmykia. That was how our film, later broadcast on the BBC as The Trials of Telo Rinpoche, ended.

Telo Rinpoche subsequently went through many ups and downs. He married a Tibetan, had a son, and settled in Boulder, Colorado. Over the years, we kept in touch with him, intermittently at first and then more regularly. The ghosts of his failed mission in Kalmykia continued to haunt him. The Dalai Lama told him to go back and finish what he had started. The people of Kalmykia were only too happy to have their beloved Shadjin Lama return and since the late 90s, he has been spending most of his time there. On our occasional meetings in India or the US, he told us of the progress he was making. He asked us to come back to Kalmykia to see for ourselves the changes that had taken place since our last visit. And so in June this year, at his invitation and after 18 years, we finally found ourselves back in Russia and Kalmykia.

Moscow was a changed city. What used to be a city of few cars – all Russian-made – and even fewer shops had been transformed into one gigantic traffic jam. The airport road, where earlier, unsuspecting cars were sometimes stopped and robbed, was now one unending stream of vehicles, with not a Russian car in sight. It took us two and a half hours to drive from Sheremetyevo airport to the centre of Moscow, the longest airport transfer ever. We had plenty of time to talk to our local liaison from the Save Tibet Foundation, Natasha, who had come to pick us up, and find out about the state of the country. The inordinately large number of BMWs and Mercedes Benzes that inched along beside us, their owners hidden behind smoked glass; the giant supermarkets and malls, including an Ikea and an Auchan that we crawled past; and the huge billboards flaunting the good life, were apparently deceptive. Russia was in the throes of a crisis where the rich were getting super-rich and the poor were being left to fend for themselves. A kind of mafia/crony coterie ruled the country with no larger vision beyond lining its pockets and keeping all criticism at check. And underneath the shiny gloss of the new city, darker forces were being unleashed, an ugly form of ultra-nationalism that targeted all non-Russians and increasingly exploded in unprovoked and random attacks on the city’s sizeable minority community.

Red-Square-at-night-2

Elista, too, seemed changed, at least on the surface; brighter, greener and more prosperous. Here, too, there were more cars on the road. Telo Rinpoche was busy with the Mongolian President’s visit when we arrived. Later, we were invited to a cultural show where troupes from both Kalmykia and Mongolia sang and danced in front of the dignitaries. The Kalmyk chairman spoke in Russian, his Mongolian counterpart in his native language. Very few Kalmyks still spoke their own language and perhaps this was a reminder to them of their roots. Later, we caught up with Telo Rinpoche at his home where we were staying. For the next three days, we chatted incessantly, catching up on his years in Kalmykia and talking about his plans for the future, which included, among other things, going to Mongolia more often to reconnect with his previous incarnation’s legacy.

Telo-Rinpoche-and-old-lady-outside-the-new-Elista-Khurul

We visited the first khurul that he had rebuilt in Elista. This was the same building whose model had stood on his desk at the White House all those years ago, mocking him as he struggled to make headway with its construction. We recalled the scene we had filmed where a young Rinpoche looked out, dejected and demoralised, over the proposed site of the khurul, a barren expanse of frozen steppe broken only by the silhouette of a non-functioning crane in the distance. But he had come back and finished it and for some years, it was Kalmykia’s main temple, before another, grander khurul superseded it. The new temple was closer to the centre of Elista. It was a massive structure, faintly remniscent, with its distinctive pagoda shaped roofs, of a traditional khurul, but resolutely modern in all other ways. It was ringed by a circle of statues representing the 18 arhats. There were tourists among the faithful, groups coming from as far away as Volgograd and Rostov. A Russian wedding party was there for a photo shoot. School children were being shepherded around in groups. A middle-aged lady knelt before Telo Rinpoche and offered him a scarf. An old lady reverentially held his hand and placed it on her head; he held her lovingly, speaking to her comfortingly in Russian. Among the many surprises we discovered was the fact that Rinpoche could now get around without an interpreter.

Inside-the-Elista-Khurul

Inside, a massive statue of the Buddha Sakyamuni dominated the main assembly hall. Beautifully executed murals, painted mainly by Tibetan artists, covered the walls. There was a good-sized auditorium and a museum of Kalmyk history and culture in the basement, and upstairs – interestingly for me – consultation rooms where Kalmyks could meet their lamas, who were mostly Tibetan, on a one-on-one basis. This was an unusual, modern twist to a traditional form of spiritual counsel and one that, according to Rinpoche, was very popular with the locals. The supplicants came for all kinds of reasons, to request divinations on a variety of matters, to select auspicious dates, to perform miscellaneous rites, and often, to find a sympathetic ear to unburden their personal and domestic troubles and difficulties. This dual role as spiritual guide and personal counsellor was a demanding one, not something the lamas had been trained in, and Rinpoche advised them to take it on as another way of putting their Buddhist studies into practice.

The most impressive achievement of the khurul was that it provided an imposing physical symbol around which the Kalmyks could rebuild their fragile and often beleaguered sense of identity. Kalmyks were proud of their khurul and increasingly, those coming to find solace here were the younger generation. To me, Kalmykia’s regeneration of its faith and culture was a lesson in how difficult it is to crush a people’s spirit and efface its identity. It is an example that we Tibetans can learn from. In our haste to sound the alarm bells about the imminent disappearance of our national identity, we overlook the enduring and deep-rooted nature of our historical and cultural legacy.

Although Tibet has much in common with the suffering of Kalmykia, there are several major differences worth pointing out. Unlike Kalmykia, which came into existence only in the 17th century, and which became incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 18th, Tibet has a long history – Chinese claims notwithstanding – of having existed as an independent country and is one of Asia’s great civilizations. The Kalmyks were followers of Tibetan Buddhism and even though the language, rituals and customs of their religion were all imported from Tibet and, in many ways, alien to them, they managed to keep their faith alive through several decades of complete repression. In contrast, Buddhism is an integral part of Tibet’s culture and traditions and has been for more than a millennium. In Kalmykia (and the rest of the Soviet Union), religion was completely banned for nearly sixty years. By comparison, the suppression of religious practice in Tibet lasted two decades and today, Buddhism, albeit in a tightly controlled environment, is once again being practiced throughout the country. Compared to Kalmykia’s miniscule population of around 150,000, there are approximately six million Tibetans. And if we are worried about the dangers posed by the current migration of Chinese settlers to Tibet, think how much more fragile the case of the Kalmyks was. At the time of their banishment to Siberia, there were around 100,000 Kalmyks in total, less than the number of Tibetan exiles in the world today! Today, the approximately 150,000 strong Kalmyks make up roughly a little more than 50% of the population of Kalmykia – the rest being mainly Russian. But this has not stopped them from reviving their culture and traditions, asserting their own identity, and carving out an ethnic Kalmyk Republic within the Russian Federation.

Telo Rinpoche’s contribution to the revival of Buddhism in Kalmykia and the consequent rediscovery and rebuilding of its national identity has been a significant one. No less important has been his success in reviving the ancient spiritual links between Tibet and Kalmykia. The callow 20-year-old we filmed 18 years ago – alone in a strange land, faced with unrealistically high expectations from its people, and wracked by personal doubt and confusion – has come into his own and more than ably fulfilled the difficult role thrust upon him by the vagaries of history. We left Kalmykia, proud of Telo Rinpoche’s achievement and confident that our paths will continue to cross in the future.

Mural-of-the-Dalai-Lama-inside-the-Elista-Khurul

Engadin Art Talks, Switzerland

We will be participating in the Engadin Art Talks later this month in the Alpine town of Zuoz in Switzerland. E.A.T. was initiated by Cristina Bechtler, and is led by Beatrix Ruf, director and curator of the Kunsthalle Zurich, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery London. The topic of this year’s talks is Mapping the Alps and the participants include several artists and architects.

While we know nothing about Alpine architecture, it is our interest in Himalayan architecture that takes us there. We will show a short video work-in-progress, Mud Stone Slate Bamboo, which chronicles the construction of our cow house in Dharamsala in the local Gaddi style.

Shubh Karan shaping stones River Stones

We will also present some pictures of traditional architecture in Spiti and talk about the changes taking place there as concrete structures, although completely ill-suited to the climate and environment, are gaining in popularity.

Dangkhar-sunset

There is more information about the talks on this website (English option as well):

http://www.engadin-art-talks.ch/en/index.html

When Hari Got Married update

dancing-at-night2

We have completed our final shoot and have also finished logging and assembling footage. Now to begin editing in earnest.

Meanwhile, we have received confirmation that When Hari Got Married will receive funding from the Jan Vrijman Fund in The Netherlands and ITVS International. These are both highly competitive awards and we’re thrilled to have been selected.

Ritu will shortly be attending the Sheffield Documentary Festival where our film has been selected for the Meet Market. Hopefully, we will interest more funders there.

Retrospective of eight of our films in Prague, 14 & 15 April 2011

Tibet-Film-Festival-Prague1

Our friends at Potala in Prague are organizing a festival of Tibetan films – Tibet Flim Fest – from 13 to 15 April at the Kino Aero in Prague. A retrospective of eight of our films will be showcased as part of the festival. This will include the first ever theatrical screening of our video installation, Some Questions on the Nature of Your Existence.

Rooftop-Debate-72

The screening schedule for our films are:

14 April, 18.00:
The Reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche
The Thread of Karma
Some Questions as to the Nature of Your Existence

15 April, 18.00:
The Shadow Circus : The CIA in Tibet
The Sun Behind the Clouds

21:00:
Dreaming Lhasa
22:30:
The Trials of Telo Rinpoche
A Stranger in my Native Land

For more information about the festival.

Screenings of our films in Jakarta

TFFPosterFA3

Four of our films – The Sun Behind the Clouds, Dreaming Lhasa, The Reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche and A Stranger in My Native Land – will screen in Jakarta as part of Festival Film Tibet.

Our new film project: When Hari Got Married

Hari-arms-outstretched

At the end of last year, we finally managed to spend some time at our home in Sidhpur near Dharamsala. We were looking forward to some rest and quiet time after things finally started to wind down on The Sun Behind the Clouds. But this was not to be. We suddenly found ourselves in the thick of a new shoot. Our new film, When Hari Got Married, tells the story of Hari, a taxi driver in Dharamsala as he prepares to get married to a girl he has never met. We’ve known Hari since he was a teenager and the idea of making a film about his marriage was on our mind ever since we heard about it few months ago. But it wasn’t until we met him again that we realised what an opportunity this was.

Hari is no ordinary taxi driver. He’s outspoken, opinionated, funny, amazingly frank, and full of wise-cracks and home-grown insights. His regular clients, who include Western Buddhist nuns and Tibetans, love him. Not having been able to meet his future wife in person ever since the marriage was arranged two years ago, Hari found a novel way to get to know her – via the mobile phone. And it was during endless conversations on the mobile phone that they began to develop a relationship. To us, Hari and his upcoming wedding represented that meeting point between the so-called Shining India – the new India of globalisation and material aspirations – and the traditional India, still deeply rooted in age-old traditions and customs.

Hari-with-bow

Our close connection with Hari and his family meant that they were happy to allow us complete access into their lives at this significant moment, not as outsiders making a film about an unusual subject but almost as family sharing in a happy event. This was a rare privilege to have as documentary filmmakers, and it was in this spirit that we set out to make this film. We shot the film in December and got some truly amazing footage. Now, we are all set to begin the edit.

Hari-Suman-arrival

We just got back from DocEdge Kolkata where we attended the pitching workshop and then pitched the film in front of television commissioning editors and documentary funding organisations from Europe, the US and South Korea. This was a first for us, having never, in all these years of making films, actually pitched in front of an audience. It was a bit nerve-racking but in the end, went well (we think)! Now, to see if this exercise actually translates into some real funds.

Miranda House Excellence & Achievement Award to Ritu

Ritu’s alma mater, Miranda House, Delhi University, is awarding her its annual Excellence and Achievement Award for her work as a filmmaker. The award ceremony will be held at the Miranda House auditorium on 19 February at 10:15 am. It will be followed by a screening of The Sun Behind the Clouds.

In conjunction with the award, Miranda House Film Club is organising a retrospective of four of our films:

15 Feb, 2:00 pm
Dreaming Lhasa (90 mins, 2005)

17 Feb, 2:00 pm
The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet (50 mins, 1998)
3:10 pm
The Reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche (62 mins, 1991)
Followed by a discussion with Youdon Aukatsang, Member of Parliament (Tibetan Government-in-exile)

19 Feb, 10:45 am
The Sun Behind the Clouds (79 mins, 2009)
Followed by a discussion with the filmmakers

Last words from Tromsø

RS-in-Tromso Tromso-main-street

(cross-posted in http://thesunbehindtheclouds.com/?page_id=36)

Tromsø, a small town way up in the Arctic Circle, seems an unlikely spot for any kind of international cultural gathering but it is, in fact, the venue for Norway’s most attended cinematic event – the Tromsø International Film Festival. And this is where we found ourselves in January, almost exactly a year after our film, The Sun Behind the Clouds, screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and set us off on a roller coaster ride of festivals and screenings. It seemed an appropriately remote place to bring our journey to a close.

Tromsø’s a beautiful little town, set on an island surrounded by fjords and mountains, snugly clad under a thick layer of ice and snow. A bluish crepuscule cast an enchanted light for the best part of three hours around midday before fading into darkness. The town boasts many “northernmost” accolades, including the world’s northernmost Burger King! Interestingly, it’s also the home of electronica duo, Röyksopp, whose 2001 album, Melody A.M., was a big favourite of ours. But Tromsø is most famous for its Northern Lights, a sight we hoped to catch while in town. Sadly, aurora borealis remained in hiding for the four days we were there.

We expected the temperature to be well below freezing but in fact, after hitting -3°C the first day, it warmed up to just above zero and caused some concern among the festival organisers that their giant outdoor snow screen where some of the screenings were to be held might begin to melt. In the event, the snow screen held up. The festival screenings were divided between a number of cinemas spread around town, including a wonderful old theatre called Verdensteatret Kino, which was built in 1916. The festival was laid back in an efficient way, and our three screenings were well attended, including one sold out show.

poster-in-foyer Chungdak-in-the-foyer

Many thanks to Chungdak Koren and her team from the Norwegian Tibet Committee, who were present during the screenings to publicise the situation in Tibet. It was nice to see that even a town as distant as Tromsø has a local Tibet support group.

Meanwhile, in India, the Tibetan Youth Congress, who are distributing both the international and Tibetan language versions of the DVD in South Asia, launched the film in Sarnath during the Dalai Lama’s teachings. They had two packed screenings of more than a thousand people each. This was followed by two sold out screenings in Dharamsala. TYC reports brisk DVD sales with a fair number headed for Tibet. One of our goals in making this film was to do our best to make the film available in Tibet and China. To this end, we made a Tibetan version and also added options for Traditional and Simplified Chinese subtitles on the international version. We know from past experience that Tibet-related videos and CDs from India do end up in Tibet and China. A pirated version of our previous film, Dreaming Lhasa, was available in Beijing with home-made Chinese subtitles!

Welcome to Our new Website

Welcome to our long overdue, re-vamped White Crane Films website! A big thanks to our son, Mila, who spent many long hours working patiently on the design and the architecture of the site. This is his first website and we’re very pleased with his efforts. We plan to update the site frequently and keep you in the loop about our activities, so do keep checking back.