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!
This is my first film and my first ever experience of shooting anything on a DSLR. The fact that we can get our hands on a $1,000.00 camera and shoot something like Saving Zanskar is very exciting. I have so many more stories to tell, not just documentary style, and not just explicitly Buddhist. More on this soon.
On a side note, documentaries can be works of art with sub-text just as narrative films can. For instance, if you have watched the film you may have noticed the out of focus shot of a rock @ 00:24? It is slightly out of focus as this is meant to represent the feeling Zanskari people must have as their culture changes around them—a kind of uneasy feeling where you are not quite sure if everything is right or not.
Also, I tried to capture the feeling of being in an Indian bus terminal by using shaky camera shots during the bus station sequence. Actually there was no way I was going to keep up with Geshe-la, the kids, keep from getting run-over by a bus, or have something stolen right under my nose, and have graceful shots. So it turned out well. Anyone that has experienced an Indian bus terminal will totally get it.
Cast: Geshe Lobsang Yonten and the children from Zanskar.
Music: “Edge of my Soul” by Jami Sieber
Canon 60d and a 28mm f1.8 USM II lens.
Color grading in Premier Pro CS5.
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.