Category: Film
Film: Life’s Rudder

Lessons For Life

Much has been written on the subject of movies as todays moral compass ((By “morals” I do not mean right and wrong from a legal point of view…that would be the domain of ethics. Rather, I am talking about the do’s and dont’s that lead oneself and others to or away from genuine flourishing. )). So I will not bore you with my thoughts on the matter other than to say I agree.

As such, film is the medium by which many people learn life lessons.

Do you remember the scene from Apocalypto where the Mayan tribe gather around a camp-fire to listen to stories by an elder. The tribes people are having fun while listening—all the while learning about life. In a similar way, todays silver screen is yesterdays camp-fire! As such movies are todays fables. Film is therefore the medium through which we tell how to live a good life.

This is so for virtues such as courage, honesty, generosity can be found in movies. The benefits of being patient, of not taking yourself too seriously…yes, them too. Of love, friendship and loyalty. The stupidity of violence and so on, all of the things that go into the making of a good life are venerated in movies.

As an aside: this if true of film even more than Tv as often with TV we are not fully engaged. We go to the movies even if we watch them from the comfort of home. TV on the other hand can be something used to simply rest from a long day at work. Moreover, ad breaks, break the continuity of the narrative and as such distract the story-teller from his or her job. But this point is off-topic and so I will not expand on this idea here. I’m, sure you get my point though.

What I am trying to convince you of is the power of film as a rudder for life. Well maybe not the rudder but certainly some part of a ship that helps people navigate life. I like the idea of the rudder though because to some extent it is hidden. So just as a rudder helps guide the boat or ship without the captain being directly aware of it, movies have the potential to tell stories that guide people through life without us fully appreciating their function.

Overstating the Situation?

Now, someone might say, “what about the movie Transformers 3? What virtue is this movie teaching?” As I have not seen it I will withhold my opinion for now. But there’s no doubt, there are films made that have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In fact, certain genres only serve to increase dysfunctional narrative or worse (but this reinforces my overall point, which I will come to shortly).

However, as an example of the positive impact a movie can have on people let us turn to a movie I just got done watching, Good Will Hunting. While, I am sure most of you have seen this wonderful movie, if you have not, do yourself a favour and go see it. It is a beautiful story!  For those that think this was a simple love story perhaps you should go back for a second look!

While there is the love story embedded in the narrative that is not the real story. The real story is human potential. But the movie does not stand up and shout this, it shows us in an engaging and entertaining way.

There are other lessons in there too. For instance, GWH is also about not allowing yourself to become a victim of circumstances, and we have all being victims of life at times. Yes?!

Moreover, it is a film that shows us the potential of overcoming problems by simply being honest with ourselves, looking within for a solution, and then putting the solution into practice. This is only hinted at in the movie, but it is there.

The relationship between Sean (Robin Williams) and Will (Matt Damon) is gold. This relationship shows the importance of friends. Of being there for people regardless of our own situation.

All beings want happiness and do not want suffering—even Hollywood agrees with us.

So now we have the claim: films can be containers of life lessons, and we have an example of such a film.

However there are some who believe that movies are not the best place to present stories of inner conflict. Robert McKee is one such person (although I am sure there are many more who feel the same).

So while it seems that everyone likes to rag on Robert McKee almost like a sport. I guess he is an easy target because he seems so sure of himself, and in fact appears to enjoy the position. So, even though there is some truth to be found in his theories there are certain McKee tenets that I believe are just plain false.

For instance, in his screenwriting “how-to” book Story and in his many seminars (you can see an example of his style in an hour long interview here) Mr. McKee stated that there are basically three kinds of mediums for story—screenplays (movies), play writing (theater) and prose (books). I will let him explain:

And the principal differences between the three of them is the level of conflict that interests the writer of each of them.  And so, you have stories—they all tell a story—but stories involve characters in conflict with their social or physical world, in personal relationships with friends, family, lovers, and an inner conflict within their own natures between themselves, their subconscious mind, their body, their emotions, and so forth.  The novelist tends to be interested in inner conflicts; characters in conflict with their own contradictory natures, their own contradictory desires, their emotions.  Playwrights tend to be more interested in personal relationships, of family, friends, lovers—because the theater is a form for dialogue, primarily.  And talk is the way in which people in personal relationships work those relationships out for better or worse, right?  And so the power and the beauty of the theater is personal conflicts.

The power and beauty in film is the extra personal conflicts of characters in conflict with their physical world and their social world.  And so while all three media can tell complex stories because you can work with inner conflict, certainly, in a film, you can work with personal conflict naturally in a film, and in a novel, you can do all three, in a play you can do all three. But the strength of each of them tends to be at one of those three levels.  And so, if you’re trying to make a career choice as to what kind of writer should I be, you really need to ask another question; which level of conflict in life really interests me the most?  And then you would presumably move into that medium.  But I know a lot of writers whose real interest is not at the level of conflict that the medium in which they are writing is strongest in.  And so a lot of independent filmmakers, for example, are really interested in inner conflict.  And so they should be writing novels and not trying to make films of people staring into space, coming to big decisions in their lives, or whatever, it would bore people.

Movies of people staring into space are boring. I agree. And it is true that some art films are more about the people in art than the art in people. But it is an oversimplification to claim that because films must have a social-physical locus in order for them to be presented on screen this somehow rules out of possibility the sub-text focusing on an internal conflict. Was Good Will hunting boring? Yet the story is all about Will overcoming his fear of abandonment so that he can get on with the rest of his life. Was GWH an example of people staring into space? I think not. It was engaging, dare I say it entertaining, and yet educational.

McKee reminds me of certain academics I have met that believe what they do because they have thought about a given topic a little (and sometimes not even that much!). Or how science claims to have found a “truth” in their latest research. Besides the fact that science as a arbitrator of truth goes against the very nature of the scientific method—the falsifiability principal—such claims are often politically and economically motivated and for this reason should be seen within that context. This approach allows for scientific theories to do good in the world without us getting all hung up on them being “truths” at all. Much better for all concerned, don’t you think?

So it should be with story telling. That is, McKee’s general claims about filmmaking notwithstanding, it is true, for a film to engage it must play out in a physical and social environment. People do not live in vacuums and so we must see internal conflict, somehow! Staring into space does not cut it. But that does not discount internal conflict from being the story of the story. Good Will hunting is an example of such a film. Don’t you think?

McKee is no dummy so I’m not sure why he believes that those interested in writing about inner conflict should stick to writing novels. It does not make sense to me.

Narrative Film From a Buddhist POV

Anyway…to the point of this article: given the degree to which films hold our imagination, not to mention their place in Western culture, it seems to be important to tell stories from a dharma point of view. Now, what I do not mean is to make movies that simply champion Buddhism. That, in my opinion, would potentially drive people away! Or at least drive away those that need it the most.

I think this is true because some people will not listen to the message of a film if it is wrapped in Buddhist culture. Some will think it religion. Some not there religion. And because of this it could not possibly have anything valid to say. Even the word meditation, for some, evokes feelings of austere lifestyles where fun equals sin. It’s true, people do think such things…sadly, some of these people are even Buddhists. Silly, right!

However, making films about ordinary people, doing ordinary things and trying to make a fist of life by overcoming obstacles (something we all suffer from…me included) is a worthwhile project to my mind.

What I am talking about here are films with solutions to life that draw on Buddhist ideas and thinkers. Buddhism has always had something to say about human suffering so why not in the movies? I mean, there is an audience sitting there waiting to be entertained so why not give em something they can use in their daily life’s as well. Why not?!

Of course, there will always be films about Buddhism—both narrative and documentary. That’s great. But do not be mistaken, the people who go to see such films are already open enough to do so. While this is fantastic what about people who are not interested in such things? Why can’t they share in Buddhist wisdom? All we would need to do is be less attached to the outer appearance of Buddhism and present it in a manner that speaks to them, not at them! This can be done. No doubt.

I hope you see the distinction I wish to draw—films about Buddhism vs. films about personal, inter-personal and social conflict addressed from the point of view of Buddhist ideas and thinkers.

To make it even clearer, rather than a film about a young man who goes off to become a Buddhist, or a film about Buddhist monks playing soccer, just imagine Morgan Freeman quoting freely from Shantideva to explain the importance of self-confidence to a young man with personal issues.

[scrippet]

EXT. CENTRAL PARK — DAY

Casually walking through central park, MORGAN a seventy-something ex-fireman and WILL a twenty-something wannabe are passed by morning joggers.

MORGAN
(calmly)

You are your own protector. Who else will be that protector!

 

MORGAN turns to SAM.

 

MORGAN cont…
(pointedly)

But you, SAM, are also you own worst enemy.

SAM

How bout them apples!

[/scrippet]

Truth is, films about Buddhism are already being made. There are even film festivals dedicated to films about Buddhism. However, and perhaps I am wrong about this but, in my opinion (and this is always subject to change) many of these movies reinforce the wrong conception that Buddhism is something “people from over there” believe in. Or that you have to be born into a certain culture to have any chance of  gaining realizations. This way of thinking is utter nonsense.

More pointedly, other than a good story what purpose does a movie about a Western tulku not wishing to follow in his Tibetan fathers lineage serve? It is an interesting story no doubt, and I’m sure it was fun for the filmmakers, but other than this, how does it help ordinary people realize their own potential? To my mind it does not.

Films about Buddhism are often really films about culture or tradition, not Buddhism.

Am I being too harsh? Perhaps!

But I do believe it is because of this, because Buddhism is often presented in cultural wrappings, that many Westerners are still confused about how to integrate these ideas into their lives. Some reject it because its too Tibetan, or too Asian, or too religious, or too whatever. While others embrace it thinking that to be Buddhist is to wear some special piece of clothing or chant stuff in a foreign language. I ask you: what do clothes, hair styles, or singing stuff you do not understand have anything to do with transforming your mind?

To be fair, there was no other way to present Buddhism at first. But this is no longer the case. It is therefore up to us to carefully explicate Buddhist ideas and present them to a western audience in a manner that they can relate to without having to adopt someone else’s culture. This is not a new idea. And it is certainly not mine. Lama Yeshe, an extraordinary Tibetan teacher said as early as the mid 1970’s, Tibetan culture is not Buddhism. Buddhism is embedded in its culture, no doubt, and it has wonderful things that we Westerners could do with, but it is not Buddhism. Because of this fact it is absolutely possible to take the seeds of Buddhist thought and plant them in Western soil.

This is a delicate point to be sure—the meaning and function of culture, tradition, Buddhism, and how they interact is not an easy subject to grasp. It is perhaps a topic for another article.

Action Plan

In the tradition of placing an idea out into the world and seeing if it grows organically, here are some thoughts:

Actually before I do let me add some prefatory remarks: Yes, movies are difficult things to have made. Yet it is not totally impossible. And if you are like me and think that helping others see their own potential is important then why not make movies about this? After all, there are movies made about all kinds of useless rubbish. So why not make movies that help people rather than grind against the idea?

Moreover, if you believe something is possible, have the right people around you and necessary support, even big ideas such as these can happen.

One idea would be to form some kind of network group (writers, directors, producers, actors, etc.) to help produce mainstream films that are down to earth solutions to human problems from a Buddhist POV.

These movies would be focused on solutions to real-world human problems of ordinary people—not the promotion of a particular lifestyle. And this can be, nay, should be done without thinking we are somehow special. The Bodhisattvas of the past and the ones out in the world today do not think they are special. They just go about helping people overcome problems in various ways. Helping those in front of them by whatever means they can find to do so.

Using film as a platform to help others therefore appears useful, highly effective, possible, and worth working your butt off for. Don’t you think?

How do we make this happen? I have no clue! But perhaps someone, somewhere, does.



13th Beach a Postpositive

Introduction

13th Beach a Postpositive is a little video I made while staying with family after returning home from a long Indian field trip for my Ph.D (I write about the circumstances of creating the video in more detail in the BTS section below).

For now, some prefatory remarks if I may. I am slightly reticent to say too much about the ideas to follow before you have a chance to watch the short-film. That being said, I would like to make a small comment about the use of the grammatical term “postpositive.” First, its important to know I am using this term as a bit of a play on words rather than in any traditionally correct grammatical fashion (I apologize to the English teachers in advance).

Second, as you probably know articles on blogs and websites are often called blog”posts” and the sub-text of this one is of course “positive.” This sounds awfully cheesy I know but I mean this in a rather different manner than you might first imagine. For more accurately a postpositive is an adjective that modifies its proceeding word. As one dictionary states: Postpositive: (of a word) placed after or as a suffix on the word that it relates to, and this is important to understand for what will come. For now, if you can, please watch the video (with headphones) before reading the article (although it is not critical to the ideas below that you watch it at all).

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Note: if you are reading this via email click here to watch the video.

Some Thoughts

Do childhood memories impact adulthood? Of course they do but, what I mean to ask is, do happy memories of childhood experiences (what John Locke called direct memory experiences) play a large role in what we find enjoyable as adults? If so, to what degree are our “choices” not really choices at all? These may seem unrelated questions given the title of the article, and on the surface the subject of the short-film, but they are not. Now, I will not try to put forward a reductionist explanation as to why or how memory may render free-will a non-starter for the truth is I have no idea whether this is the case or not. However, I can tell you a little story (and a tiny bit of theorizing) about my own experience in this regard if you care to listen?

Like many Australian families Christmas meant packing enough gear into a caravan to last four weeks and heading off to our favourite holiday destination. I was only six months old when I had my first Christmas family holiday, and in my case this meant travelling ten hours to Pambula beach holiday caravan park. My first Christmas holiday was spent paddling in the shallows of the Pacific Ocean held securely in my mothers arms and watched over by a proud new dad. Not a bad start I’d reckon.

[lightbox type=”image” title=”13th Beach Dad Driving” href=”http://clarkescott.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/13th-Beach-Dad-Driving.jpg”]13th Beachclick to enlarge[/lightbox]

But even before I was born my father (pictured above) was into surfing. This was well before surfing was super popular as it is today, and it was back in the day when everybody had to surf those old style 12″ boards. In fact, now that I recall, my first surfing lesson was on his surfboard. Of course my father was the instructor and he would also lay on the board so it was probably more of a ride with dad than a lesson. Nevertheless, we were a “beach” family and this was a family tradition that would last for the next two decades (until I thought I was too cool to be near them!). It goes without saying this was a time I now look back on with great fondness. However the question remains: do good experience based memories impact adult life in any significant way?

While I have not spent much time near the water in the past twenty years, for me there is still to this day, something quite special about the sea—the way the ocean meets the sky and the sound of waves lapping the sand draws my mind out allowing it to become more expansive than usual (a little bit like some types of meditation). It is such a joy to simly sit by the ocean and look out to sea. In fact, I can recall that as a young man on those family holidays I would lay awake at night listening to the sound of the waves crashing over the sand, and recently I found myself doing the same. This brought back memories of my youth, and helped to focus the topic of this article. So, I can say without exaggeration that in my case memories of those summer holidays marked me, in a good way, forever.

Nevertheless, for some the ocean does not have this effect. For them the same positive affect comes from being in the bush, or climbing a mountain, or perhaps camping beside a river and other such places in nature. Now you may think this article is all about nature—that I am going to say there is something “special” about nature, and if we could all just get back to nature everything would be alright! Or you might think I am suggesting that if one spent time as a child near the beach then this will become your magnet in adulthood. But I am not. While nature is beautiful, no one can doubt that, what I think is going on here is pretty simple but perhaps unnoticed.

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I believe our fondness for the beach (or mountains) as an adult has more to do with human to human communication than anything about the places themselves. For when we are young our parents are communicating with us in a manner that is devoid of disappointment, or resentment, or any other issue that can build up over years of parenting. Children can be pretty horrible to their parents and there is no doubt the same can be true in reverse. People can be hurt by the simplest of things and this will often effect communication moving forward. This then builds up over time so that the simplest of conversations is near impossible. Think, teenagers!

In those early years before the resentment creeps in however, our relationships were based on a strong sense of being cared about. As I said in The Writer “caring about” and “caring for” are fundamentally different in tone. This, I think, is the reason why I am drawn to the ocean. To be clear, I am not suggesting some type of Freudian mother obsession. No. I am simply suggesting that people respond to empathetic communication far better, and in ways that we are not fully aware of. And because of the circumstances of holidays (parents are more relaxed than normal) empathetic communication is the basis of much of the communication (verbal and otherwise) that occurs during these times. We then associate this experience with the holiday itself and for that reason, for me, the beach is inherently calming. This of course happens under the level of conscious thought, and it is only through introspection that this can be teased out.

[lightbox type=”image” title=”13th Beach couple walking” href=”http://clarkescott.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/13th-Beach-Couple-walking.jpg”]13th Beach couple walkingclick to enlarge[/lightbox]

More generally, what I am suggesting is that when there is no resentment or any other underlying issues communication between people is easier regardless of age. For when communication is based on an open attitude that cares about the future of the other genuine communication occurs. This is true of all kinds of relationships, not just child and parent.

I know I keep banging on about this but I believe the importance of empathetic communication is vital at an individual, family, community, national, and international level, and should not be underestimated. But now is not the time to muse about such things.

What is the point of this post then? Well, as I mentioned in The Writer, if you want a good life, if you want to be happy, find out what makes you tick well and do that (as long as it is supporting your life and of course not hurting others).

I surmise, therefore, that our past can act like sign posts for a new future that leads us in the general direction of a good life—eudemonia as Aristotle put it. Hence the use of the term postpositive. That is to say, we can transform our past, mend broken relationships, and make good ones better, if we understand the relations between out past and the present.

Geshe Loden once said to me that even for a yogi in the mountains communication is important. What he was pointing out, I believe, was what motivates a yogi to spend years meditating in isolation, is not to remove themselves from society, but rather, to garner the conditions to communicate with sentient beings. One might say that compassion and wisdom are the ultimate tools of the Bodhisattva—the greatest of all communicators.

[lightbox type=”image” title=”13th Beach Lifesaving lookout tower” href=”http://clarkescott.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/13th-Beach-Lookout.jpg”]13th Beach Lifesaving lookout towerclick to enlarge[/lightbox]

[lightbox type=”image” title=”13th Beach rock pool” href=”http://clarkescott.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/13th-Beach-Rock-pool.jpg”]click to enlarge[/lightbox]

Behind the Scenes

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Technical

I was hoping to have a new Canon 50mm 1.4 USM II lens by now but alas no luck on that front. So the technical section of this post is the same as the last few and that is, 13th Beach a Postpositive was shot on a Canon 60d with a 28mm 1.8 USM II lens. I then graded the short using Magic Bullet Looks.

There is quite a bit of moire in this short. I did not really notice until the final color-grade. However, I am not sure there is anything I could do about it regardless. Hopefully the 5d MkIII and next generation cameras will sort this issue out.

Commentary

After arriving back in Australia I have been staying with my family as I work out my next move. This video was shot during this stay. So, while I grew up in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne (the capital city of the Australian state of Victoria) the family home is now situated in a beautiful little beachside town called Barwon Heads (for those Australians in the audience it is the town featured in the popular TV program called Sea Change from a decade ago). Barwon Heads is a quiet and somewhat sleepy country town. The perfect place to arrive home to after spending 6 months in India.

Close to the sleepy little town of Barwon Heads is an even sleepier stretch of coastline, which fifty years ago my father surfed as I did when I was young. It is a beautiful piece of coast with sand and reef breaks that stretch all the way from Black Rock to the Barwon Heads bluff—about a 15 kms stretch of coastline. Besides the wooden steps and lifeguard lookout (which you can see in the shortfilm) 13th Beach remains almost the same as it did when my father surfed it all that time ago.

Knowing I would spend some time at Barwon Heads when I got back to Australia I decided, even before I left India, to shoot 13th while there. So, to the video.

It was shot over the course of two afternoons. The first afternoon I walked the 30 minutes from my the family home to get to the beach. The second my father drove. I edited the two days together.

Day one was spent mainly on the sandy area of 13th just near the club house. While on the second day I spent more time near the bluff shooting the rock pools and other stuff that did not end up in the film such as the rock formation pictured below.

[lightbox type=”image” title=”13th Beach Dad Driving” href=”http://clarkescott.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/BTS-Rocks-2.jpg”]click to enlarge[/lightbox]

[lightbox type=”image” title=”13th Beach Dad Driving” href=”http://clarkescott.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/BTSRocks-1.jpg”]click to enlarge[/lightbox]

During the second days shoot, at some point I walked out to the further most rock-ledge I could find and was starting to set up for a shot of some rocks when a wave come in and totally soaked me right up to just below my knees. As I do not always feel the need to “advertise” my vocation I was wearing civilian clothes and so my shoes, socks, jeans, all get totally soaked. Here is the moment captured!

[vimeo width=”600″ height=”338″ video_id=”23427040″]
if you are reading this in an email please click here to watch the behind the scenes video.

Needless to say this was an enjoyable little video to make. The area is just so clean and quiet. Actually, Australia is full of beaches just like 13th, and could make for a wonderful documentary about people and their relationship to those beaches. Now there is an idea!


The Writer

1. The Words

What does it mean to be a writer? When does one get to call himself a “writer.” Could it be that a writer is someone who is paid to write? Or perhaps a writer is someone who simply puts pen to paper? Maybe its simply a state of mind, or even just a label we use to make it easy for others to understand what it is we do. For me, a writer, at least in one sense, is all of the above and yet in another it is none of them. For writing is communication. Of course, it’s not the only kind of communication but, at its heart, is the flow of an idea from one human to another. This for me, is key to being a writer. Indeed, this for me, is key to being human.

Think about it, what does a nurse, mother, teacher, or even taxi driver have in common? A natural desire to communicate. Of course their manner of communication is vastly different. Yet it is true to say that if we are not communicating we are not living to our fullest potential. So the question then becomes, what does it take to communicate well? For me, the answer is empathy. For if I can place myself in the shoes of another, if I can think like someone else, if I can feel what they feel, then I can communicate. But of course this opens oneself up to failure. Because we all think, feel, and act differently. Yet without doing so one cannot grow. One cannot learn the skills needed to communicate if one is not willing to feel the pain of another. So in a sense, to be a writer, is to embrace failure!

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If you can please watch the film (with headphones) before reading my comments below.

2. Some Thoughts

One of the great things about filmmaking as a medium is that it affords the viewer the space to think for himself or herself. Writing, on the other hand, can often tell a reader what to think—it is this way and here are my arguments for saying so. Case in point, the previous sentence! Be that as it may, with film there is more space around the intended meaning allowing those engaging the piece at a deeper level to create their own. I love this about narrative filmmaking. Don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting an audience can simply subvert meaning. No. For what would be the point of having a point if the only person who had access to that point was the person who made it? Silly! Right?

Moreover, the notion that there is no truth outside of what we give it is a post-modern trend related to the philosophical view of subjectivism—the view that everything is purely subjective—and if subjectivism were true then it must be false for it requires at least one objective truth, and that is, everything is subjective.

Nevertheless, what I wish to point out here is the heuristic nature of film. That there is head room to think for oneself is inherent in the experience of drawing meaning from narrative. Like trying to grasp Heidegger, Kant, or dare I say it, the Buddha, film requires you get your hands dirty. Cognitive benefit is therefore derived from the very process of finding meaning. That is to say, because one must think a little in order to recover the intended meaning this process alone will benefit oneself. This is so for you are forced to think in a new manner, you are forced to come at old problems from a different angle, and it is through getting at these old problems in a new way that can yield fresh insights. This is a good thing. As I have said many times, truths (philosophical or otherwise) are not things we look up in books.

It is for this reason that I will not comment on The Writer in detail. For now I will simply add the following:

The Writer has its genesis with the idea that all beings want happiness and do not wish to experience suffering. This is a tenet central to Buddhist philosophy and a core principal motivating the Bodhisattva commitment. However, I do believe the idea that beings aspire for a good life and actively avoid even a headache is not a principal which only applies to Buddhists. I think it is simply an observation of a naturally occurring innate psychological phenomenon inherent to all of us. This is no earth shattering insight for it is obvious to anyone with an ability to introspect.

“I want to be happy. I do not want to experience bad things, and I have the right to garner the conditions of such a life. So what!”, you say!

But if this is true, as I believe it is, then understanding the causes of happiness in order to obtain the resources to genuinely flourish becomes important on an individual basis. For on one level what makes me happy, what I consider to be happiness producing, may not be the same for you. If you want to be happy therefore it is important for you to understand yourself to the degree that you know what kind of food is good for your body and what food will have you running for the bathroom.

Moreover, if you do indeed wish for a good life, it is important to understand your own psychology so that you may understand what kinds of social situations, for instance, you find difficult. You can then either avoid them or learn from them—no need to point out which approach I believe is preferable. I am not suggesting happiness is purely subjective however-you know what I think about subjectivism-but at some level it is true to say that we can define happiness based on what oneself finds pleasant. By using this analytic strategy in your own life you can not only understand what makes you tick, but what makes you tick well. As it’s your life. Live it; don’t let it live you!

Notice, however, this manner of defining happiness in terms of how the world impacts on you is closely related to a physical level of reality. This implies of course there is a level of happiness deeper than this—a level of happiness which is not derived from contact with a physical stimuli. This kind of happiness is a sense of well-being, a mental and physical feeling that we bring to the world (to borrow a turn of phrase from Alan Wallace).

Moreover, I wanted to explore the idea of whether or not there is a kind of happiness that we can all share in. That is to say, is there a cause of happiness that transcends tradition, culture, and even history? For it is one thing to claim that all beings want happiness and another to see how this manifest throughout history.

While there may be others, it seems to me that one such cause is feeling cared about. Now, I am choosing my words carefully here for I am saying cared about not care for. Being cared for is when someone does something to help another but this does not require that you care about that person. For instance, there may well be some nurses who can care for a patient without caring about them.

When you are cared about, and you yourself care about others, you cannot help but feel life is going well. This sense of well-being is not reliant on the world (not on contact with physical stimuli anyway) but rather, it is something that we can bring to the world.

The message of The Writer is that it is possible for ordinary people living in modernity to achieve this sense of well-being, and they have.

3. Behind The Scenes

In the future I hope to extend the BTS section but for now, and for those interested in such things, I have written a short commentary and have added a couple of BTS shots taken on a cheap point & shoot. I hope you enjoy it.

Technical

Shot on a Canon 60d with one lens—a Canon 28mm f1.8 USM II lens—and graded in Magic Bullet Looks, The Writer is my first narrative film.

I am not entirely happy with some of the shots and the script needs to be unless formal. I’m not entirely happy because I think the mood of the piece requires a more defused look (as apposed to direct sunlight) and feel more like a personal conversation. Several friends have pointed this out and I agree with them, I think.

Because of this I tossed up whether or not I should to publish this film as is. In the end I thought it best to publish it now, and if I do indeed redo the film later then I will simply publish it again simply because this is my first every narrative film (I am more interested in narrative than, say, documentary filmmaking).

And yes, I need more lenses! I do have a 50mm f1.4 USM II on order and plan to purchase a set of older Nikkor AI-s glass from eBay as soon as I can afford them. I think this will help somewhat when to comes to visual storytelling? We will see.

Commentary

The Writer was shot in my small one-bedroom apartment looking out over the Kangra Valley, Dharamsala in India (the home of the Dalai Lama for those unfamiliar with the area). I was there between November 2010 and April 2011 doing research for my Ph.D.

I did not plan this film it kind of just fell together. In fact, it came about because I was bored working writing and wanted to learn about visual story telling through practice instead. So I looked around my apartment for a suitable subject without luck. It then dawned on me to shoot a film about a writer. I mean I had everything I needed—a computer, a writer, a window for said writer to look out of pensively (I should point out at this stage that the film is not about me, but rather, a writer, any old writer, and if you read the section on my thoughts above you will see that it is not really about a writer either).

At this point I cracked open the Canon 60d and setup for the first shot. This is the shot looking directly at myself over the edge of the laptop (the first shot of the film). From there the words started to appear. What is a writer? At what point do you get to call yourself a writer? Am I a writer? I felt embarrassed to answer even though I spend most days writing. So, the fact that I am the subject of the story is simply a matter of convenience.

As this was happening questions about the writing process kept popping into my mind and so I sat back down to write a line or perhaps two. As it turned out the first half of the piece came together in the first few minutes. This was great as it meant I had a working vision for what I would need to convey with images. I then went back to shooting. Actually, now that I think about it, the whole film—words and pictures—was more or less complete within that first hour. Of course, I had to narrate, add sound effects, and so on but, that first hour laid the foundations for the ideas of the short.

As I said, shooting took place over the course of an hour as the sun began to appear over the Himalayan mountains. In the shots where I am looking out the window I had to keep my eyes shut until I began recording because the brightness of the sun was making them water. This would have made for a good effect if there was a crying scene but as we all know, real men don’t cry, so having a tear roll down my cheek would simply not do! Just kidding of course. But having to set focus then stand there with my eyes closed is all true.

Talking about focus. Given I had the iris wide open in order to achieve a shallow depth of field in most shots critical focus turned out to be an issue. I would have to set focus several times by doing test shots first and then play them back to see if I was in focus. This of course meant I had to move from where I was standing or sitting, and once you move then there is always a chance you will not stand in exactly the very same spot. However, once I got focus (more or less) I hit the record button, take my place in the scene. For the window shots I had close my eyes for a few second and then open them to get the shot without watery eyes. For the most part this approach worked.

I did however have to shoot additional footage (I think there are two additional 6 sec clips) as the music I chose for the piece ran a little too long for my initial edit. This meant I had to wait for another three days until we had similar weather in order to get the required shots. Not a big deal.

In terms of the mood of the piece it is clearly pensive.  The script certainly called for this to be conveyed. So there was three basic images I felt needed to be taken. (1) Window shots to show that a writer, writes alone; (2) the writer, writing; and (3) closeups as the piece is actually about the utility of empathy in everyday life, and importantly for everyday people.

Here are a couple of BTS shots taken with an Lcheapo point & shoot Panasonic.

If you have any questions, or would like further information please do not hesitate to contact me. I do respond to every email even if it might take a little long.

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Norbulingka Institute 2011

Last Sunday (20th March 2001) I went to Gyuto monastery to shoot a narrative film with two young monks. On my way home I stopped by Norbulingka Institute. Although the gardens at Norbulingka are quite beautiful, and worthy of their own piece, I ended up shooting just the main temple as I was short on time.

Thoughts

A fundamental theory of Buddhist philosophy related particularly to Buddhist soteriology is the notion that every living being has the potential to become enlightened—”Buddha potential.” This potential is a naturally occurring and innate quality of the mind. It is not something outside of ourselves that must be venerated from afar. Becoming Buddha, in one sense, is simply waking up to who we really are—knowing thyself in the ultimate sense. But what does this mean and how can we, as ordinary people, relate to this potential as our own?

One way to bring this potential into a practical everyday sense is to empower yourself with a confidence born of empirical insight. That is, check it out for yourself. But in order to do so one must understand what it is that is being tested, and how to go about running the experiments.

To answer the more technical “what is” question first:

Buddha potential can be broken into two types: (1) Natural potential, and (2) developed potential. Natural potential in simple terms is the quality of the mind that allows change. More accurately, it is the fact that the mind does not exist inherently that allows change. If it were to exist inherently it would remain as it were, forever.

Examples of developed potential are functional, positive, and constructive minds such as compassion, confidence, friendliness, wisdom, courage etc. Together these two aspects of potential allow contemplatives to proceed along the path to enlightenment by developing compassion and so on.

An enlightened being is therefore someone who has completed the development of these minds, which as stated is only possible because the mind has an natural and innate quality that allows this development to occur. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to my mind, is one such person and as such is a template for my own practice.

In practical terms I personally draw comfort knowing that if I put these words into action change will happen. But it is action that is really the trick here. In that regard, a close friend and senior Australia monk once remarked, “is your biggest obstacle what you do not know or what you do not do!”

For many people, however, the feeling they are incapable of change, of success, or developing genuine happiness is like a mantra…”I can’t…I can’t…I can’t.” Sometimes this attitude manifest strongly in thoughts such as, “I can’t meditate” “I can’t develop genuine compassion for myself let alone for others!” Say it enough and it will be so.

While at other times this self-defeating attitude manifests subtly (and in such a manner as to be hardly noticeable) whereby one simply assumes that the human condition is the normal working order of things. Moreover, this attitude can manifest with thoughts and assumptions such as the Buddhist path is meant to be difficult, or only people with a non-western cultural background have any chance of developing these qualities.

Relating this to the above short, Buddhist art, be they statues, paintings and whatever, reflect this optimism. Art, in the Buddhist world, serve as reminders of this potential showing us the path home so to speak.

The take-away therefore is that you do not have to look outside of yourself to find genuine flourishing. For you have everything you need right here. All you need to do is begin the process.


Saving Zanskar: A Short Documentary

Saving Zanskar: A Short Documentary is the story of a Tibetan Buddhist monks vision to save his dying culture by providing the children of his region with a modern education.

Shot over the course of a few days (6 hours of total shooting time) in several locations around Northern India, Saving Zanskar is an insight into the problems facing ancient cultures as the younger generation are increasingly influenced by modernity.

The interview for the film was shot in a relatively quiet place behind the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala. It is one of the few places in Dharamsala (unknown to many) where I could get clear shots without people walking behind, around, or in front of the camera!

 

 

Cast: Geshe Lobsang Yonten and the children from Zanskar.
Music: “Edge of my Soul” by Jami Sieber

Thoughts

As for my thoughts on Geshe-la’s vision: I believe he is spot on about saving his culture by educating it’s children. For it is only through an appreciation of the unique qualities of this ancient culture that the children of Zanskar will have any interest in helping to preserve it. To think that we can simply leave them be and everything will be okay is sheer fantasy.

For instance, it is already the case that Westerners go to Zanskar for trekking. Yet, the companies that run these tours are not Zanskari, and as far as I know, no money goes back into the local community. Therefore little benefit is gained by having Westerners come to Zanskar. Western companies selling trekking are making money off the Zanskar region while the local population remain living a life of simple subsistence. This is not something that should continue to my mind.

If we educate Zanskari people then perhaps they could set up their own companies and begin to work with the changing social-economic environment rather than being forced to sit and watch as Westerners use them and their land, or worse still talk about how they must continue to live the same way they have in the past simply because of some strange notion that this is a purer way of life. Let me see you work 18 hours a day and eat just roasted barley.

Moreover, it is only through a modern education that an appreciation for the heart of the Zanskari tradition will grow within the younger generation. The heart being such things as compassion and the development of human values. These are the things worth preserving not the food or the tools used to harvest the them.

Because the world will continue to change around the Zanskari people there is the potential for them to leave them behind—poorly educated and without choices—if we do not educate the younger generation but, what kind of education is needed? This is where Geshe Yonten’s idea of a combined “inner” and “outer” education is important. FYI: Geshe-la is coming to the U.S. for a speaking tour later this year if you would like to hear more about his ideas.

Back to the topic: I recently heard a Westerner suggest that the children should be left in Zanskar rather than receiving a proper education in India if their culture is to survive. This is, in my opinion, simply wrong! For it fails to understand or take into consideration that a “culture” ancient or otherwise is fundamentally a dynamic system. It is a political, economic, and social system with a history, but most importantly a future. This is something that most people fail to see. These things that we call “cultures” are not static artifacts or museum diorama stuck in history to be admired from afar. We have to remember “cultures” house real kids with real hopes and dreams. Do you really want to force the kids to stay in Zanskar poorly educated, and without opportunity?

Perhaps this line of thinking is born, as a friends pointed out to me today, from the fact that sometimes, some Westerners, romanticize poverty—while tweeting about how consumption has corrupted Western culture from their iPhone.

The world is changing so quickly we have to remember that we are dealing with people’s lives, and it is people that matter, not their history.