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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Doc ethics questioned in 'Zanskar'

June 21, 2010

QMI Agency
The Toronto Sun (Canada)
June 18, 2010

Journey from Zanskar
Director: Frederick Marx
Starring: Geshe Lobsang Yonten, The Dalai Lama, Richard Gere
Running time: One hour, 30 minutes

I can certainly see the attraction of the Tibetan diaspora to documentarians.

They're a devout and culturally passionate
Buddhist people, hoping to wrest their land back
from the Chinese through sheer karma, their fires
glowing in ashrams in a mountainous netherworld
between giants like India and Pakistan.

Amid our dim memories of Shangri-La fables,
practically anything to do with Tibet will
resonate. Some, like 2008's Unmistaken Child --
about the search for the toddler reincarnation of
a Buddhist lama -- really do seem to reflect something transcendent.

But the latest in this genre, Journey from
Zanskar, evokes uncomfortable questions about documentaries in general.

Narrated by Richard Gere, aka the Dalai Lama's
Hollywood spokesman (His Holiness has a cameo in
the film, as he did in Unmistaken Child), Journey
from Zanskar follows the shepherding of a handful
of children from one of the world's most
benighted places, 180 miles through the mountains
to a Buddhist community where they can be educated as monks, nuns or teachers.

Zanskar is one of those places that makes you
wonder about the sanity of the people who live
there. There is practically no grass or trees or
electricity or phone service. The people may, in
fact, live off rocks. For all that, it is
territory coveted by all the nearby powers (India
has it, Pakistan tried to annex it in 1999).

Journey From Zanskar is the story of a Zanskarian
monk, Geshe Lobsang Yonten, who sees the children
of Zanskar losing their language and culture, and
comes up with funding to pay tuition at a
Buddhist temple in Manali for 15 of them.

Wilderness training is not his strong suit, since
Geshe first takes the parents and their children
on a Donner Party-like 20-mile-a-day horror climb
through 17,000-foot-high mountain passes,
courting hypothermia, starvation and hypoxia.
Finally, when even the yaks won't go any further,
they retreat to Plan B, which is to hire a bus.

Consider these scenes of distress. There is a
Western camera crew accompanying them, led by the
editor of Hoop Dreams. When oxygen-deprived
parents desperately carry their flagging children
through the snow, these guys are carrying
cameras. It brings to mind Survivor, when the
contestants are down to their last cup of rice,
as the crew gets fat on craft service food.

I'm making assumptions about the conditions for
the Westerners, because they are so obtusely
committed to the illusion that they are not there
that they become the elephant in the mountain pass.

Without trying to play spoiler, the
aforementioned Plan B sees the entire future of
the project rest on being able to come up with the king's ransom of $600.

C'mon. The budget for this film could have flown
them in by helicopter. For that matter, Richard
Gere probably has enough cash stuck between
cushions on his couch to pay that freight.

But then, there wouldn't be a film, would there?
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