Nirvana in Reel Time: The International Buddhist Film Festival

by Gary Gach

A ticket to any international film festival can be a boarding pass to destinations in ten directions around the globe. Yet a ticket to the International Buddhist Film Festival can lead to the ultimate direction. Within . Based in the Bay Area, this wonderful resource returns to the Rafael April 10-16 to celebrate its 15th anniversary with 16 new films.

IBFF2015WebLogoFor more details, I caught up with two figures. First, I met Gaetano Kazuo Maida, executive director of the International Buddhist Film Festival (IBFF) over a pot of tea at Far Leaves, around the corner from his office at Zaentz Media Center, also home of Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. He began by giving an overview of the upcoming festival.

Gaetano Kazuo Maida: Opening night (April 10, 7pm), the premiere of Even Though the Whole World Is Burning , about poet W.S. Merwin, introduced by local poet extraordinaire Jane Hirshfield, is sure to be a standout program. The closing night (April 16, 7pm) film is a wonderful comedy from Thailand, The Three Marks of Existence , introduced by the inimitable Wes “Scoop” Nisker, a well-known dharma teacher and performer with a healthy sense of humor. And on Sunday evening (April 12, 8pm), Mark Watts presents his Why Not Now!? A Documentary on the Life and Works of Alan Watts , including amazing animation works by Matt Stone and Trey Parker (South Park).

Kazuaki Tanahashi in Painting Peace.

Kazuaki Tanahashi in Painting Peace.

There are two interesting strands that emerged in the programming: one, there are a number of titles that touch in one way or another on Buddhism in America and the West, with all the changes and adjustments in traditions you might imagine. People profiled include Joan Halifax (Giving Life to Life ), Gelek Rimpoche (American Rimpoche ), Kazuaki Tanahashi (Painting Peace ), Jetsun Khandro (Khandro: A Woman’s Path of Peace ), and Dharma Rising visits with Alan Wallace, Jack Kornfield, Jan Willis, Bernie Glassman, Blanche Hartman, Norman Fischer, Robert Thurman, Mel Weitsman, and Stephen Batchelor, among others. And two, there are four titles from our colleagues at BOS-TV in Amsterdam, the only Buddhist broadcaster in Europe, including the remarkable music-rich drama Bardsongs .

A sleeper breakout title would be On the Road , a wonderful documentary filmed on location in Korea among a vibrant group of Buddhist nuns in a rural monastery (April 13, 7pm).

An image from Lee Chang-jae's On the Road.

An image from Lee Chang-jae’s On the Road.

EatDrinkFilms: An element that’s interesting here is how you manage to reflect the diversity of contemporary Buddhism.

GKM: Someone once said to me, “You know, the Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist.” Today we can say there isn’t one “Buddhism” but many Buddhist traditions (and parallel traditions) sharing the essential elements of the practice of wisdom and compassion and the insights about impermanence and interconnectedness. IBFF 2015 has films from ten countries, and over the years we’ve presented works from twenty-two nations. As can be seen in the BIA strand here, there’s even enormous diversity just in the USA! (By the way, recent statistics indicate that Buddhism is second only to all Christian denominations—there are more Buddhists than Episcopalians or Jehovah’s Witnesses for instance— in fourteen states of the US, including California.)

Peter Matthiessen in a selection from On Meditation.

Peter Matthiessen in a selection from On Meditation.

EDF: And On Meditation: Documenting the Inner Journey?

GKM: We’re really delighted to have these wonderful pieces. Rebecca Dreyfus is producing quite a library of short works that offer an intimate introduction to the meditation practice of the likes of David Lynch, Peter Matthiessen, Sharon Salzberg, Giancarlo Esposito, Ven. Mettayya, Rep. Tim Ryan, Elena Brower, and others. We’ll fit as many of these in as we can, one per program wherever there’s enough time.

EDF: So there’ll be an element of surprise to each screening. Excellent. And how many of the films are premieres?

GKM: We are very fortunate here: every one of the fifteen titles we’re presenting is a premiere: some world, a few US, some West Coast and a couple Bay Area. The thing with most of these films is that they are unlikely to be seen theatrically in these parts again, so it’s doubly important to catch them during IBFF 2015.

Bardsongs is one highlight at the International Buddhist Film Festival.

Bardsongs is one highlight at the International Buddhist Film Festival.

EDF: EatDrinkFilms readers already know how film is meant ideally to be experienced on a big screen in a theater. Can you tell us how the differences between video and theatrical might have any Buddhist elements?

GKM: Actually, several of the titles here were originally produced for Dutch public television, and some other titles are destined for PBS broadcast in the US. There’s no inherent difference in the media, but there is a difference in the experience of watching a film projected on a big screen in a dark room full of strangers rather than curled up on your couch (or holding a tablet or a phone!). The issue, in my experience, is one of control: in the theater you willingly let go, surrender to the projected images on the screen … perhaps there’s something of the Buddhist concept of “reality” being a projection of mind in that….

Jetsun Khandro (left) is profiled in Khandro: A Woman’s Path of Peace.

Jetsun Khandro (left) is profiled in Khandro: A Woman’s Path of Peace.

EDF: So if film can, in and of itself, be Buddhist—what is a Buddhist film?

GKM: Well, we say that we feature films with a Buddhist subject, setting, creative team or… implication. We have presented films like Rivers and Tides with not a single specific reference, but it’s all about impermanence and imagination, so … By the same token we’ve re-contextualized films like Jacob’s Ladder , which was marketed as a thriller but which was inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead (via Amazon or Indiebound) and describes a bardo (the interval after death) experience disguised as a Vietnam War-era PTSD flashback story. Another way to put it is: if IBFF shows it, it’s a Buddhist film!

The Thai comedy The Three Marks of Existence screens at IBFF.

The Thai comedy The Three Marks of Existence screens at IBFF.

EDF: Do I have to be Buddhist to enjoy the festival?

GKM: Cinema is a realm of imagination, curiosity and sensory experience, and it’s proven to be the medium of our age. There’s something for everyone in every festival. Anyone with an openness to independent world cinema will find something to enjoy here.

Joan Halifax is profiled in Giving Life to Life.

Joan Halifax is profiled in Giving Life to Life.

EDF: If you had to tell my aunt Ida in Jersey, quickly, over the telephone, what was the most memorable experience in your 15-year career with the festival, what would it be?

GKM: Mexico City by a length! We had no idea that there even were Buddhists in Mexico (I know, I know!), but our hosts convinced us to come and visit, and on our first day there, they introduced us to a gathering of representatives from 25 different Buddhist groups! Needless to say, IBFF Mexico City was a great success, with the welcome reception in the Zocalo (the huge central square) alone featuring chanting Tibetan monks and Mexican shamans on a high stage, with a large screen with live video closeups and over 50,000 people in attendance! We screened 25 films, subtitled in Spanish, in five cinemas including the Cineteca Nacional. Amazing experience….

EDF: How did the IBFF come to be? ( … sudden inspiration? gradual nurturing of a seed? … ) Were there are any precedents at the time, and do you view yourself in terms of a growing context?

GKM: Some of us here were involved in the founding of the Buddhist journal Tricycle back in 1990 and we had penciled in a film festival as part of the plan. There was a small Tibet Film Festival in NYC in ‘91 and a similar series at the SF Asian Art Museum (during the Year of Tibet). We came close to launching in ‘94 with a lot of local support here in the Bay Area (Landmark’s Gary Meyer, KPFA, the Castro) but in fact there really weren’t quite enough films to make a festival (this was a few years before Kundun and Little Buddha ). Finally, in 2000, a group of us came together in Berkeley to organize the Buddhist Film Foundation to take on this work. Since then, we’ve assisted and advised festivals in Melbourne, Australia; Amsterdam, Holland, Singapore, and Washington, DC while producing our own around the world.

Gelek Rimpoche—seen here at the age of 4_is the subject of American Rimpoche.

Gelek Rimpoche – seen here at the age of 4 – is the subject of American Rimpoche.

EDF: How many festivals have you hosted in the Bay Area? Is there any frequency? When might the next one be?

GKM: Our model is a case of necessity being the mother of invention: we are not a “city” festival or an endowed institutional event (or even corporate sponsored), so we only present a festival when we have assembled a good program and we are invited by a host organization. To our surprise, this has taken us around the world: London, Amsterdam, Mexico City, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Vancouver; and LA, DC and here (now for the fourth time since 2005). So it’s not “same time, same place” every year, but whenever/wherever conditions are right. Next up (so far): Sydney/Brisbane/Byron Bay, Australia; Seoul, South Korea; Vancouver, British Columbia; Honolulu, HI and very likely Los Angeles for the first time since our first festival in 2003. We’d love to finally get to New York somehow, and return to London.

EDF: I don’t happen to have a couple million dollars to donate to IBFF, but if I did, how would the donation change IBFF for the better?

GKM: BFF is totally dependent on contributions from individuals and grants from foundations; ticket revenues account for a mere fraction of the cost of a film festival and BFF is so much more than just a festival: fiscal sponsor, archive, distributor, and soon, streaming platform for VOD. Every dollar donated is very efficiently put to use: BFF maintains a very low overhead, a distributed infrastructure and a largely volunteer team; it’s a very lean nonprofit and all donations are meaningful and make a difference.

Dharma Rising screens at the International Buddhist Film Festival.

Dharma Rising screens at the International Buddhist Film Festival.

EDF: What else you have on your worktable? Can you give EatDrinkFilms readers a taste?

GKM: I’m currently developing two long-form projects: Swans At the Lake—The American Story of Buddhism , inspired by the classic book (How the Swans Came to the Lake ) by the late Rick Fields, and In Search of Green Gold , the amazing story of tea (and opium and dim sum and yes, scones and crumpets). Ironically, both of these are designed for television (or whatever it means to deliver motion pictures to individual screens by the time I’m done!).

Horizontal RuleWhile the waitress was getting more hot water for our teapot, I phoned filmmaker Ellen Bruno. She slaked my curiosity as to Myanmar: New Voices/New Visions (April 5). Here’s what she told me.

EllenBrunoEllen Bruno: In 2005 a young Burmese British woman discovered her mother was Burmese. It had been a family secret. That led to her to going and looking for roots, as a filmmaker. While there, she discovered Burma had no tradition of documentary filmmaking. It was a new concept for them. So she became and remains the founder and director of the Rangoon Film School, with incredible people teaching camera, editing, sound, from all over Europe and Australia. By now, it has turned out hundreds of students.

When I arrived, I discovered an incredible group of smart, enthusiastic students from all walks of life— mid-career journalists, activists, former political prisoners—not 18-year-olds looking for something to do. Fortunately, they were very diligently learning high-end production skills, while looking for ways to talk about the many things they wanted to talk about.

Until recently, they had been taking on simple subjects, such as the flute player in the village or traditional birthing practices. Being the first to teach them how to do research and make treatments for investigative journalism, I had the privilege of giving them the green light to say, “What do you want to talk about?” Mindful of the dangers of speaking their mind, they decided it was time for speaking truth.

Director Shin Daewe's An Untitled Life screen as part of Myanmar.

Director Shin Daewe’s An Untitled Life screens as part of Myanmar.

It’s a very euphoric time there. They can actually listen to themselves speak their mind, and they can speak without looking over their shoulder for fear of reprisals. But there is still fear. They’re still testing what it means to have some semblance of speech, and can they trust it. But they see the doors crack open and are going for it. During the course of my time there, they generated very provocative concepts. Some are children of political prisoners, and are talking about corruption in the legal system. Others are documenting illegal abortion. I brought American films with me and they got to see what American documentary storytelling was like.

Seeing their previous work, I realized how much there is to learn from their films about simple culture there. So I brought a bunch back with me, done with previous tutors. Slices of life of Myanmar today. Like a 24-hour weaving competition, in a remote village—a weave-athon, almost. Weaving monks’ robes, they’re evaluated by how tight the stitches were. Some are overtly about Buddhist subjects, such as monks learning to wrap robes—or, when monks get back to the monastery after collecting alms, what is it like at the bottom their bowls. Or, in a conversation between spouses, they’ll reference a teaching, in a simple way.

May Darli Aung's film Share is part of Myanmar.

May Darli Aung’s film Share is part of Myanmar.

They’re all very simple humble films—but very poignant, understated. Their tutors had the brains to explain that “information” coming at you in a polemic, expository way is not the only way to make a documentary. It’s ok to let the audience have the experience, and let it unfold slowly. It’s quite remarkable how well that happens here. And since there are so many questions about what’s happening there now, it’s really refreshing to take a peek into what people’s lives are like, day to day. It’s a privilege of insight into the culture and peoples.

April 10-16, 2015. $8-12 per program.
Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St, San Rafael. (415) 454-1222.
For more info, visit and

Gary Gach is author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism (via Amazon) and has been hosting Mindfulness Fellowship weekly for six years now. He recently wrote afterwords to Buddhism and American Cinema (Amazon), and appeared in the indie sleeper Your Good Friend (Amazon). Visit him online.


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