I recently had the chance to speak with the creator of a remarkable film that
explores the sacred sites of the Dalai Lamas in Tibet. This pilgrimage with translator
and author Glenn Mullin is a fascinating journey that takes you to the caves
where the early Buddhist masters meditated and enters the monasteries where the
Dalai Lamas and others taught, and – at an altitude of over 16,000 feet – looks
down into the famous oracle lake of Lhamo Lhatso where every Dalai Lama has had
The Sacred Sites of the Dalai Lamas was written, filmed and edited by Micheal Wiese, with narration and music by Steve Dancz.
Why did you make this film? Did you have a personal interest in Buddhism?
Michael Wiese: Steve Dancz and I have been friends for years. He’s godfather to my daughter. He’s composed half a dozen sound tracks for my films – so when he invited me to join him and his teacher (Mullin) on a pilgrimage it was a beautiful offering I couldn’t refuse. Deciding to make a film came later. In fact, I thought maybe I wouldn’t take a camera because it might get in the way of a spiritual experience.
I’ve been interested in Buddhism since I was a teenager. Just yesterday I was going through boxes in our storage facility and found pictures of places where I lived. I had forgotten that I always seemed to have a picture of a Buddha hanging on the wall. At photography school, one of the teachers, Minor White, had his students doing Zen meditation. In my early twenties I lived for a year in Japan and hung around the Zen temples in Kyoto. So at every turn there it was. About 16 years ago I went to an initiation by the Dalai Lama (who by the way was the first to view this film).
How did you find your pilgrimage team: Mullin, Dancz and Khenpo Tashi?
MW: Mullin is Dancz teacher. Khenpo was invited by Glenn Mullin and until the final hours before leaving for Tibet we weren’t even sure Khenpo would be granted a visa.
What was the most difficult part of filming? The high altitudes?
MW: The high altitude certainly had an effect. The first two days of filming were all rubbish because I was breathing so hard I couldn’t hold the camera still. Being in a high altitude slows the body and muddles the mind. I couldn’t do math but I was fantastic at making funny word associations. A few nights we panicked and couldn’t breathe, our brains starved of oxygen were only remedied by breathing bottled oxygen from a couple of Chinese hairspray-type canisters that we bought in Lhasa for $1 each.
I had no crew with any of the filming so when I was exhausted the filming stopped. Since I was shooting without permits and under the radar of the central Chinese government, I didn’t take any professional equipment. Keeping a very low profile was key. Even the small tripod I took never seemed to be with me when I needed it. The Sherpa who carried it always seemed to be on the other side of the mountain when I needed it.
Pre-production planning was difficult because I didn’t know where we were going, who we’d meet, what we’d learn or experience. And even though I’d read Glenn’s 600+ page book on 2,000 years of Tibetan history and the lives of the first Dalai Lamas going back to the early kings of Tibet, I felt it was all intellectual and didn’t really inform how I’d go about actually making a film.
On another film I am currently making, we’ve written 34 drafts of the script. The Tibet film had no script (it was written after I shot it), no equipment, no crew, no budget, no make up, no catered lunches!
What "sacred site" did you find the most interesting or profound?
MW: Structurally we made the film about our going to the sacred lake. That was a goal of the pilgrimage, but actually the climax isn’t in arriving at the lake but in the moment-to-moment events. I quickly realized I had no control over what we were doing, nor the filming because I had no opportunity to restage anything for a second take. If I didn’t get it the first time, I would never get it. This is white-water filmmaking!
So I made it my "practice" to simply be. To be exactly what I was. A naive and innocent set of eyes on a pilgrimage. I’d try to see things for the first time. When we went somewhere I’d point the camera at first a "beginning," then follow something and that would be the "middle" and then find a way to "end" the sequence. This very simple (beginning, middle, end) structure worked very well. I had to let go of a lot of preconceptions or ways to pre-visualize things (which is the way most films are made). Instead I shot as how life is actually lived – moment to moment. As a filmmaker, this was very profound for me because it demonstrated that you can make a film by simply being. It makes me appreciate filmmakers that have embodied these simple, but profound, techniques in their work, such as Ozu, Misoguchi or Bresson.
How did you avoid government officials? Aren’t many of these sites off limits? Did you have to hide your cameras?
MW: The sites then were not off limits. We did have to have an "official" guide and stick to a pre-approved itinerary. The sites are now closed to tourists or visitors. I didn’t deliberately hide the camera, but I did try to look like a tourist as much as possible. Actually a few times I did hide the camera, but I didn’t use any of this footage. There is a big difference – as my photographer wife Geraldine Overton has taught me – between "taking" (or stealing) a photo and "giving" a photo. Giving it – such as the shots in the monastery with the chanting monks, which is giving back to them your appreciation of them – really shows on the film. Filmmaking is a two-way street. Hiding doesn’t work.
What was your most memorable moment?
MW: There were many. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that – as Glenn says – we will probably remember on our death beds. For me, one powerful moment came after three weeks when we finally reached the peak and looked down on the Oracle Lake. Everyone who has ever visited the lake has had visions or vivid dreams. Knowing this, I was challenged – would I meditate at the top like everyone else and have visions or would I continue filming? As it turned out, we only had about an hour or so at the top because it hailed freezing rain. I had committed to shooting and making that my practice so I continued giving up the opportunity for a personal vision. (A very bodhisattva thing to do! Ha!) So I was the only one who did not have a vision. (Although many Tibetans told me that my vision was the film itself.)
I had "my vision" the next day when Steve and I climbed around in the ruins of the second Dalai Lama’s monastery and found a meditation cave. Everything from this vast vista of mountain peaks to the macro fauna growing at our feet was connected, and I felt a profound connection to every living being and plant life.
The film is a dramatic reconstruction and uses creative license. What is described in the above film scene is actually a blending of the separate experiences that Steve and I had. It all sounds like it was Steve’s experience, but actually I wrote the script so it’s my words in Steve’s mouth. He is often talking about my experience!
How did this filmmaking journey/pilgrimage affect your personally/spiritually?
MW: It’s given me many ideas of how to film at a clear and simple level. It has certainly deepened my experience – just being in these very powerful places where thousands of beings with very high spiritual intentions have trod. It has deepened my commitment and my practice.
For example, ever since I saw that monk save the bug from the juniper fire (in the film at Nechung), I can no longer kill any insect. I catch spiders and all sorts of insects that find their way into our cottage and take them safely outside. They are beings. They are miracle creatures if you take the time to look at them closely. Killing them for any reason is unthinkable.
What do you hope that viewers will take away from the film?
MW: There is a great deal of focus on the political situation in Tibet. This is very important, but I felt that people already know about this. I wanted to make a film that celebrates Tibetan spirituality and the rejuvenation of their culture. Basically, I wanted to make a film where they too could join a pilgrimage with open eyes and hearts. The information carried by the narration is minimal, but enough to point you in the right direction. If you want to learn more or read more about these places, you certainly can. The film is not an intellectual travelogue. My job was to get out of the way and give you an experience of "being there."
The greatest thing ever said about the film was from a Tibetan monk who said, "I felt like I was there and blessed." I hope the audiences that see the film will feel blessed. That seems to be what is happening with the film – or at least with every screening I’ve attended.
Do you hope the film will help the current political crisis in Tibet?
MW: For a time, Tibet had 20 percent of its population engaged in spiritual practices for the benefit of all humanity. That’s pretty extraordinary in the history of the world. We see that this intent is still present after the great hardships that Tibet has been through and continues to experience. It’s an amazing culture and needs to be viewed beyond the polarities of the political crisis. Perhaps the film can in some small way contribute to this awareness.
How did you go from being America’s top film book publisher to a filmmaker? Which came first?
MW: I started making films in the 60s, went to film school, made documentaries and shorts when I lived in San Francisco. I worked in the media industry in New York and Los Angeles on hundreds of pieces. In 1981, I had been successful at making films and so I held seminars to share this with my fellow filmmakers. The seminar handouts became my first book. It was rejected by dozens of publishers, so I self-published it. At that time, there was only one "how to" book on filmmaking. Since then, we’ve published more than 110 books on writing and filmmaking, and the genre is well established and benefits the entire filmmaking community. Now people know how to make media or can learn through out books. The next step is to help them create media that inspires and informs and benefits audiences for generations to come.
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