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The Fate of Zanskar

August 5, 2009

The Tibetan community in Zanskar lacks a school
of its own. They and important Tibetan leaders
believe they have a lot riding on the children
being sent to receive religious and secular
training. Filmmaker Frederick Marx has documented
their struggle to get that education.
US-China Today
The University of Southern California
July 31, 2009

Like many isolated peoples in an increasingly
interconnected world, Tibetans in Zanskar -- a
small Tibetan region in Jammu/Kashmir, India—face
losing their cultural distinctiveness. This
predominately Muslim region, which both India and
Pakistan claim, is filled with poor land and
small villages usually consisting of a few
hundred people. The Indian government school in
Zanskar operates irregularly and doesn’t offer training in Tibetan Buddhism.

Two monks originally from the region were sent by
the Dalai Lama to see that the children in the
region receive Tibetan Buddhist training as well
as a secular education. In order to accomplish
this goal, they plan to one day build a school.
In the meantime, they take the brightest children
of Zanskar and lead them on a long arduous
journey to a distant Tibetan Buddhist school.

Due to a tight budget, the two monks led a group
of children on foot to Manali. After walking for
days, and just needing to hike over one last
mountain, the group encounters heavy snow that
makes it too dangerous to continue on. Left with
no other choice, the monks spent the majority of
the remaining funds on bus tickets for the children.

This touching story brings to light the issues of
cultural preservation, the balancing act of local
needs and national agenda, and the simple desire
of parents wanting what is best for their
children—education. These are the struggles that
the Zanskari people and many other minorities in
the region struggle with daily.

The Uighurs of Xinjiang, China, for example, face
present day challenges that seemingly mirror that
of the Zanskari people. The July protests in
Xinjiang magnify the issue of a people struggling
to boldly speak out on the needs of the local
people, while doing so in the parameters of its national agenda.

Frederick Marx, best known as the producer of
"Hoop Dreams," has captured this moving yet
treacherous journey on film and is aggressively
pushing to get their story out. In this US-China
Today interview with him, he discusses the
challenges of filming in Zanskar and his fondness for the Zanskari people.

Q: How did you get involved in this project?

A: It began as work for hire. A friend of mine
from Chicago by the name of Barry Weiss had met
the monks, had been to Zanskar, and had wanted to
help them. He was already raising money to help
them in The States. Then he had decided that it
might be even more helpful to have a documentary
about what they were doing. So, Barry reached out
to me and that is how it started. I was basically
hired to go out there and start a film about the monks.

Q: In your filming process, what has been the hardest part?

A: Well, there have been a number of
difficulties. Three come right to mind. One is
just the physical challenges of shooting in
Zanskar: the altitude, the dryness, the
availability of food. You name it! It is a
physical challenge on a number of levels. A
second big challenge has been the translation. We
shot about eighty hours of footage, and about
forty hours of that footage is in Zanskari.
Zanskari is a dialect of Tibetan that very few
people speak, and even fewer people speak
Zanskari and English. So, after -- we finished
shooting in February of ’05, it took a good part
of the next three years to get the footage
translated. The third big problem had been
fundraising. Especially over the last year of
course, with the economy collapsing, it just has presented many challenges.

So, while you were filming, you didn’t really
know what was going on? You didn’t have a translator with you, right?

Correct! I never quite knew what everyone
[Zankaris] was saying. It took about 3 years to
find translators who could do a proper job of
translating the footage. So, that was the problem.

Q: What sorts of means do you use to go after
funding? I know you came to USC to screen your
film. Is this a typical way to raise funds? Or did you have other plans?

A: It [a screening] is a very untypical way of
funding. I have never done it before. I never
screened my film before it was finished. For me,
it was basically Plan D in terms of funding for the film.

Plan A was basically to get high profile, large
donations from individuals and foundations, and
that sort of dried up. Plan B was to take out
loans, promising people, once the film was
finished; I would make enough money to pay them
back 10% interest on their loans. So, I borrowed
a certain amount of money, but that dried up last October.

Plan C, never quite got off the ground. The seeds
are in place, but I don’t really have the
infrastructure to support it. And that is the
so-called "crowd-funding" model. We use the
internet to reach out to, ideally hundreds of
thousands of people, and then we just ask people
to contribute $20-50, to try to get 10,000 people
to do that. So, the website is there, the
donation page is there, but I really don’t have
the infrastructure, the technical capacity, and
the personnel to really make that happen. Now
plan D is to take the film out in its unfinished form and solicit donations.,76.135254&sspn=1.382421,2.276917&ie=UTF8&ll=33.390173,76.766968&spn=3.210464,4.669189&z=7

Q: You talked about the physical challenges of
shooting in Zanskar. What sort of effects did this have on you as a person?

A: Aside from all of the immediate ways it was
affecting me-- from altitude sickness, shortness
of breadth, and all the physical discomfort
aside-- I’ll tell you the deeper issue really
affecting me was that it was kind of inspiring.
These people are such amazing people. They live
under such hardships, under such an extreme
environment. They not only get by, but they do so
with good cheer and a communal sense of
cooperation. In fact, they inhabit the values of
Buddhism: of kindness and cooperation and caring.
This is not a society where there are murderers
or rape or domestic violence. At least to my
knowledge, there is none. They just don’t have
problems like that. So, given how difficult their
lives are, it was very inspiring to me to see
that that difficulty does not translate into
personal aggression, hostility or ego-driven behavior.

Q: As you are filming, at what point do you feel obligated to step in?

A: [T]hat is a question that you have to ask
yourself many times each day, and come up with a
different answer each time. You can’t come up
with a kind of a blanket rule and expect to
respond to it in the same way all the time.

[An audience member asked why I did not] come up
with the $700 to put the kids on the bus [from
Zanskar] to begin with. Well, the fact of the
matter was that would have changed the reality of
what was happening. The monks had this plan to
take the children and walk over the mountains
with them. And they were going to do it
regardless of whether I film them or not. And so,
all I did was film what was already going to happen.

To me, it is important to recognize the
difference between what is already set in motion
and is going to happen, or has already happened,
and what hasn’t yet happened that probably would
happen if I am not here. And should I impact the
difference and make it change by virtue of
intervening. Those are tough existential
questions that have to be addressed again individually as they arrive.

Now, I will give you one example of how I
answered it in the course of filming. We filmed
with one family before we left Zanskar, and the
monks had come to visit this family to interview
them about taking one of their children. And in
the course of the filming, it became clear that
the family was basically starving to death. They
were under extreme duress and they did not have a
yak. A yak is kind of essential for each house;
at least one. The yak not only potentially
provides milk and food, but also dung for fuel,
and for them the key thing was plowing. So they
had to borrow one or rent one...

When I finally understood what was going on, (it
was never easy) -- I asked the monks how much
does the yak cost? They said $300, and I said
tell them I will give them a yak. So, we bought
them a yak. That just seemed to me to be the
appropriate response to the situation.

I didn’t bring it up at USC because I didn’t
think it was necessarily appropriate. It is also
a dangerous thing because (it) is a kind of
instinctively human response and under certain
circumstances can sound like heroism and it’s
not. What I am talking about here is something
that anybody would have done under similar
circumstances. I’m not interested in singing my praises.

Q: There is one scene where the whole crew is
trying to get over the mountain. They realize
that the yaks can’t go over, so they decide to
take a different route and have to take the van.
Later on, at the end, the parents were able to
make it over the pass. What was the big
difference? How come the parents were able to make it over?

A: The difference is the animals, the luggage,
and the children. When we tried to get over, we
had a lot more luggage. The irony was, if we
didn’t have the animals and so many luggages, we
could have made it. We would have walked over.
But, with the children, the animals and the
luggage, we couldn’t. So, when the parents come
back, they don’t have any of that. They are just
walking themselves. So, even though the snow was
probably much deeper when they came back a couple
of weeks later, they were just walking, so they made it.

Q: When it came time to rent the van, the monk
charged a mother and several girls in order for
them to ride as well. It seemed like a subtle
form of discrimination. Could you elaborate on that?

A: What Geshe talks about, is they pay half [of
the] price. What Geshe figured out is what it
would cost per person to go. What it costs per
person, let’s say $40 dollars. Since they were
already way over budget, and the young women were
never a part of the plan to begin with, they came
along on the trek because they were going on a
pilgrimage. Geshe said fine, you can come with
us. But they had to [supply] their own food, and
their own needs and whatnot. So the same was true
for the bus. He said you are more than welcome to
come on the bus, but if it is going to cost $40 a
person, rather than just even ask them for the
full $40, he asked them for $20. They didn’t have
enough money to go at $40, but they could go at $20.

Q: Have you gone back? Have you been in touch with the monks and others?

A: I haven’t been back since February of ’05. I
am going back next week for the first time, but I
won’t be going all the way to Zanskar. I haven’t
been in touch with the children and the parents
at all since we stopped filming. But, I do stay
in touch with Dhamchoe and Geshe, the two monks.
I stay in touch with them by phone and email. Of
course, Zanskar doesn’t have access to either. My
hope is that we’ll, once the film is finished in
the fall, maybe next summer, be able to go back
to Zanskar and screen the film there for the families.

Q: Could you talk a bit about your encounter with
the Dalai Lama? Was it the first time you had seen him?

A: It was the first time I had met him. The monks
asked me that question too afterwards; in fact
everybody does! The truth of the matter is I
revere the Dalai Lama, but at the same time, I
was working that day. So, I wasn’t there for my
own benefit. I was there to do a job. And that
job was -- we had maybe 15 minutes with the Dalai
Lama. We had tried to get an interview with him
for months and never succeeded. We knew that we
had to have him in the film, so I finally had my
chance and I had 15 minutes to make it work. So I
was very, very focused on getting the job done
and getting it right. So I was completely
consumed with working with my cameraman and
making sure we had everything we needed for this scene.

* Billy Noiman is an undergraduate senior at the
University of Southern California studying
Business Administration and East Asian Languages
and Cultures. He is also Deputy Editor of US-China Today.

Visit the Zanskar site:

CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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