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Tibet stars in tales of despair, hope

June 14, 2008

The Gazette (Montreal), Canada
Friday, June 13, 2008

Tibetophiles die and experience a joyous rebirth with the release
this week of not one, but two, movies set in that high country.

One, Milarepa, is a dramatic creation based on the early life of the
title character, a mightily revered Buddhist saint who died nearly
900 years ago. The other, Blindsight, is an award-winning documentary
about six blind Tibetan kids who attempt the ascent of a sister
mountain to Everest in 2004.

Both films unfold among the most spectacular landscape on Earth. Both
offer insights into a people and culture much romanticized but little
understood by average Westerners. Both, for reasons many and varied,
are among the most fascinating, remarkable and compulsively watchable
films of this or any year.

Milarepa almost defies description - not for what it is but for how
it got made. A Tibetan Buddhist monk named Neten Chokling Rinpoche
who had never directed a film before, assembled more than 60 fellow
monks in an area of the Tibetan plateau unknown to postal codes and
virtually inaccessible to the things - film crews, craft services,
hair and makeup trailers, wardrobe, honey wagons, local extras - that
go along with making a movie.

There, he not only made a movie, but also made a rock-solid drama
that benefits from relatively few Western influences to tell an
ancient and completely contemporary tale of the evil that men do in
the name of revenge.

Those of us happily holding an idealized image of old Tibet would not
see Milarepa in a historical context but for the name of its main
character. Village life, costumes, customs and rituals, all seem
timeless as the passage of the seasons. But this is one serious
story, and it unfolds with the power of tragedy.

Briefly, Milarepa (Jamyang Lodro, of The Cup) grows up the son of a
wealthy merchant. The merchant suddenly dies and leaves his wife and
two kids in the care of a venal aunt and uncle. They suffer horrible
poverty and are shunned by most of the community, who follow the
money. Milarepa's mom is especially incensed at their treatment and
sends her boy off to become a sorcerer so that he can stick it to
their oppressors.

Through some probably easily explained but still impressive effects,
he achieves blinding white enlightenment at exactly the same moment
that Tuesday's storm hit Montreal West. This is not an exaggeration.

Unfortunately, the resulting chaos, suffering and death that Milarepa
inflicts upon the village brings him no satisfaction, only great
unease. Further study into the futility of revenge is obviously
required. This spiritual journey, the second part of the film, is due in 2009.

Blindsight is inspired by inspired examples. Erik Weihenmayer is a
blind American climber who reached the summit of Everest in 2001.

Sabriye Tenberken is a blind German force of nature who founded the
school Braille Without Borders for the blind in Lhasa. She wrote
Weihenmayer a letter congratulating him for being a role model to
help blind people participate fully in society.

It is especially important for her kids, Tenberken wrote, because the
blind in Tibet are believed to be possessed by demons and are shunned
by family and society alike. Traditions die hard in Tibet.
Weihenmayer is so moved by her words that he decides to visit the school.

One thing leads to another, and six kids, Weihenmayer, Tenberken,
sighted guides from around the world, supplies, yaks, sherpas and a
film crew led by blind-in-one-eye director Lucy Walker (Devil's
Playground) are marching up Tibet's 7,043-metre Lhakpa Ri, the
highest mountain anywhere except the Himalayas, where all the big brutes brood.

Like Milarepa, the mere fact of its existence boggles the mind. Add
the unique access to the families of these brave kids, highly unusual
footage of street life in Lhasa, oh, and the jawdropping immensity of
the landscape, and you have a clear-eyed, unsentimental,
warts-and-all film that redefines the imagination.

Then there's blind mountain climbing. The good news? You can't see
down. The bad news? You can't see down. Amazing.

Rating 4
Starring: Jamyang Lodro
Playing at: Cinéma du Parc in Tibetan with English subtitles.
Parents' guide: some violence.

Rating 4
Starring: With Erik Weihenmayer, Sabriye Tenberken
Playing at: Cinéma du Parc in English, Tibetan and German with
English or French subtitles, depending on the time of the screening.
For times, go to
Parents' guide: some language.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008
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