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#2152 - Monday, May 23, 2005 - Editor: Gloria Lee  

Travellers & Magicians was shown at a local film festival recently, and I recommend it with much enthusiasm. You could enjoy this movie for the scenery alone, no matter how oblivious the lead character is to the beauty around him. While reviews abound on the internet, I have chosen an interview of Khyentse Norbu to feature his own insights into the making of the movie. The first movie made in and about Bhutan also lead me to research some fascinating facts about the country itself.    


Writer-director Khyentse Norbu, who scored an international hit with the 1999 drama THE CUP (PHORPA), about Tibetan refugees obsessed with watching the World Cup soccer finals, returns to his homeland to make the remarkably charming and engaging TRAVELLERS & MAGICIANS, the first feature-length film to be made completely within the Kingdom of Bhutan. Norbu, who worked with Bernardo Bertolucci on 1997's LITTLE BUDDHA, is believed to be His Eminence Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, an incarnate lama, and he infuses TRAVELLERS & MAGICIANS with a thoughtful and contemplative Buddhist mind-set. Tshewang Dendup stars as Dondup, a young, impatient cigarette smoker from the city who has stopped by the small, remote village of Chendebji on his way to America, where he can't wait to make lots of money. But as he sets out on his long journey, he misses his bus and must try to hitch a ride down the mountain on the nearly deserted roads. He is soon joined by an old apple picker (Ap Dochu), a monk who plays the dramyin (Sonam Kinga), a rice-paper maker (Dasho Adab Sangye), and the rice-paper maker's college-age daughter (Sonam Lhamo). As they wait for rides, the monk begins relating a story about a magic student, Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji), who doesn't believe in magic and would rather start making money in the corporate world. But his brother, Karma (Namgay Dorjee), who does believe, concocts a plan that soon has Tashi stranded in the middle of the forest with a bitter old man (Gomchen Penjore) and his beautiful, much-younger wife, Deki (Deki Yangzom). Norbu magnificently intertwines the two stories, creating an enchanting, unforgettable film that is filled with heart, hope, and humor.  

The above site also lists some dates the movie is playing in various cities.  

Even better, Netflix has the DVD.      

Khyentse Norbu  

Filmmaking credentials aside, Khyentse Norbu is also known as His Eminence Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. He is one of the most important incarnate lamas in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and a member of one of Bhutan’s most noble families. Born in a remote area of eastern Bhutan in the Year of the Metal Ox (1961), he is the son of contemporary Buddhist master Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, and grandson of both tantric yogi Lama Sonam Zangpo and H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche. At the age of seven, Khyentse Norbu was recognised as the third incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, the nonsectarian saint, scholar and principal lama of Tibet's Dzongsar Monastery. Dzongsar Monastery is renowned as a centre of non-sectarian scholarship and contemplation, having produced many of the greatest Tibetan Buddhist masters, scholars and practitioners of the last century. Raised in strict Buddhist monasteries and institutions in Bhutan and Sikkim, Khyentse Norbu was trained by some of the greatest living masters of Vajrayana Buddhism.    


Comments from Writer-Director Khyentse Norbu  

Origins Every time I travel from west to east in Bhutan, I see these people waiting for cars. That sight for me is something very sentimental and I’ve always thought I would write a story about them. "Izuni Odoriko", a story by Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata, also gave me some ideas. It is about a group of travellers and an infatuation between a dancer girl and a school boy. A big part of Travellers & Magicians is actually adapted from a Buddhist fable about two brothers, one aspiring to become a magician. It is a story within a story. I liked this structure because it suited the characters. These kinds of travellers have a lot of time and in order to entertain themselves they tell a lot of stories. I also think it makes the film interesting. The character of Dondup represents a certain restlessness that you can find among some Bhutanese youth.  

Balancing Filmmaking and Buddhism People ask "You are a Buddhist lama, why do you make film?" This question is a bit puzzling. It indicates to me that from certain standpoints working in film is viewed as almost sacrilegious, like I am breaking some kind of holy rule. At the same time, I understand. People automatically associate film with money, sex and violence because there are so many such films coming out of Hollywood and Bollywood. But if only they had access to films by the likes of Ozu, Satyajit Ray, Antonioni, people would understand that filmmaking doesn’t have to be like that. In fact it is a tool. Film is a medium and Buddhism is a science. You can be a scientist and at the same time, you can be a filmmaker.  

The Concept of Reincarnation I guess the concept of reincarnation and the laws of citizenship and naturalisation don’t work together. I am recognised as a reincarnation of one of the great Tibetan masters — although I feel that for the first time in the history of karma, karma made a mistake. Regardless, in this life I am Bhutanese. And in many ways, I am proud of being Bhutanese. But my Buddhist training comes from the Tibetan tradition, so I feel very loyal and sympathetic to Tibetan culture and people. While I am not a Tibetan citizen, I have undertaken the responsibility of several Tibetan monasteries and schools and I’ve done this for a couple of reasons. First, as a service to the Buddha dharma which, broadly speaking, Tibetans are maintaining at the moment by preserving it as a living system. And secondly, because I am a reincarnation of this Tibetan master, I am entrusted to continue his work.  

More Emphasis on Wisdom Between ethics, morality, and wisdom, Buddhism has always put more emphasis on wisdom. Wisdom surpasses behaviour. Some of the more conservative generations might raise their eyebrows at what I do and what I say. But what they have forgotten is that their so-called "right thing to do" and their revered traditions were once upon a time very modern and progressive. I have often heard that some people feel I am Westernised, I guess partly because of my association with Westerners, but I totally disagree. I may be slightly modern, this is true. But when it comes to Buddhist teaching itself, I totally oppose people attempting to make Buddhism more adaptable to the West or to the modern world. It is not required. Buddhism has always been up to date. From the moment Buddha taught, the essence of the teachings hasn’t changed. And it shouldn’t change.  

A Bit of Buddhist Influence It’s not as if Buddhism, like some other religions, is against idolatry. For centuries Buddhism has adopted the method of statues and artistic representation in order to express messages of compassion, love, wisdom. Film could be seen as a modern day thangka [a traditional Buddhist painting]. Having said that, I am not claiming that either of my films are spiritual, though because of my obvious background, you might find a little bit of Buddhist influence in both works.  

A Love of Film I make films because I love films. I love the whole concept – telling a story with pictures, the framing, the pacing, the sound, the dialogue. I like the fact that you can present what you see in your mind’s eye. You look at the whole picture, but your mind has chosen to focus only on one thing – let’s say, this person’s eyes - and you can demonstrate that choice, that vision within the four corners of film. Film is one of the most powerful mediums that we have today.

Future Films I have several more stories that I have written particularly for Bhutan. One that I hope to make is a simple love story. I notice that many Bollywood and Hollywood films over- sensationalise romance and it doesn’t necessarily happen like that. It can be a very simple, very ordinary, and at times corny, but at the same time significant, like missing someone’s presence. I don’t see myself changing my profession into fulltime filmmaker, but I definitely might make a few more films. Making the second film created a lot of pressure because while the first one is kind of a novelty, the second one is where one is tested. I hope people’s expectations are not sky high.  

excerpts from an interview by Noa Jones  


As the inspiration for the fictitious Shangrila of James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, Bhutan has long fascinated the world. The country and people have remained delightfully unspoiled, isolated by natural geography and deliberate government policy. Roughly the size of Switzerland, but with a population of approximately 700,000, it is sandwiched between the two most populous nations on earth – India and China. Travellers & Magicians opens a window for the first time in a feature film, on this tiny Buddhist kingdom nestled in the Himalayas. The Bhutanese have developed a singularly unique approach to life which is beautifully and sensitively portrayed in the film. Bhutan is a country where the King is also the head of the government, the people wear national costume by law and Gross National Happiness is, by royal decree, considered more important that Gross National Product. Until the 1960s Bhutan had no financial currency, roads, electricity, telephones, schools, hospitals, postal service nor outside visitors. The people enjoyed their simple life, travelling everywhere by foot or on horseback, bartering goods and remaining blissfully unconnected from the technological changes sweeping the rest of the world. Only 40 years ago, the King decided, that as part of his plan to unify the largely rural country, it would develop a national language. Of the dozen or so dialects, he chose Dzongkha, spoken by about a quarter of the population. It was, like all the country’s dialects, an oral language only and the government’s first step was to create a written form. Filmed in Dzongkha, Travellers & Magicians represents a significant ripening of the process. The country has more Buddhist monks than soldiers, and by law holds more than 60% of the land mass under forest at any one time. In the social and environmental turmoil of today’s world, Bhutan is a precious jewel.


What About Gross National Happiness?

Measuring policy success as an increase in wellbeingBy NADIA MUSTAFA

Posted Monday, Jan. 10, 2005
When Jigme Singye Wangchuck was crowned king of the Himalayan nation of Bhutan in 1972, he declared he was more concerned with "Gross National Happiness" than with Gross Domestic Product. This probably didn't come as a surprise to the forest-laden country's 810,000 to 2.2 million (estimates vary greatly) residents, most of whom are poor subsistence farmers. Bhutan's GDP is a mere $2.7 billion, but Wangchuck still maintains that economic growth does not necessarily lead to contentment, and instead focuses on the four pillars of GNH: economic self-reliance, a pristine environment, the preservation and promotion of Bhutan's culture, and good governance in the form of a democracy.

King Wangchuck's idea that public policy should be more closely tied to wellbeing — how people feel about their lives — is catching on. "There is a growing interest in some policymaking circles in looking at these measures," says Richard Easterlin, economics professor at the University of Southern California. "We have been misguided in dismissing what people say about how happy they are and simply assuming that if they are consuming more apples and buying more cars they are better off." There are efforts to devise a new economic index that would measure wellbeing gauged by things like satisfaction with personal relationships, employment, and meaning and purpose in life, as well as, for example, the extent new drugs and technology improve standards of living.


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