‘Vajra Sky Over Tibet’ presents beautiful scenes and a dark side
By Ty Burr
For a movie made by Buddhists about Buddhists for Buddhists, “Vajra Sky Over Tibet” is awfully dualistic. That paradox is partly the point: Writer-director John Bush filmed in Tibet without permission from Chinese authorities, so interviews with locals were nixed for fear of involving them in reprisals. Instead, he combines footage of street life and Buddhist temples with his voice – overs and those of two Tibetans in exile. The result is a gorgeous, meandering travelogue that only gradually bares its teeth.
The film is the third in Bush’s “Yatra Trilogy,” the first two of which focused on Theravada Buddhism in the countries of Southeast Asia. “Vajra Sky Over Tibet” can’t help but have a political dimension: Since the 1949 invasion of Tibet by Mao’s Communist Chinese, the ancient Himalayan theocracy has endured mass bloodshed, desecration, and diaspora.
A half century of cultural genocide has been forcefully dealt with in such films as Martin Scorsese’s 1997 “Kundun” and documentaries such as “Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion” (2002). “Vajra” takes a more quietistic approach, one that initially flirts with new-age vapidity. Bush takes his video camera to the capital city of Lhasa and out to Gyantse and Shigatse in central Tibet; he films pilgrimages to Gandan monastery, the center of the Dalai Lama’s Gulugpa order, and visits such eye-poppingly exotic sites as the Jokhang Temple, the Palkhor Chode Monastery, and the Dalai Lama’s summer palace in Norbulingka.
The ceaseless rush of monks and laypeople alternates with astonishingly lovely footage of Tibetan Buddhist temple art (some of it filmed at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art), while street chatter and chant music composed by Tibetan exile Dadon lull the viewer into a deceptively somnolent state.
The voice – overs by Bush, Dadon, and Tenzin Choegyal are impressionistic and, at first, not very useful; they offer unexplained observations in a way designed to baffle neophytes. When the camera focuses on a giant gold Dharma Chakra and we’re told only that the center images represent the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, good luck if you’re coming to this belief system for the first time.
Yet as the images unfold and the facts accrete like sand in a mandala, “Vajra Sky Over Tibet” builds an atmosphere of serene outrage. We learn of thousands of temples destroyed and surviving buildings used as slaughterhouses. We’re told that photos of the Dalai Lama (currently in exile in Dharamsala in India) are illegal, that years of government relocation have resulted in a 50 percent Chinese population in Lhasa.
We hear the unbearably sad story of the Panchen Lama, the second-highest-ranking priest in Tibetan culture. The 13th Panchen Lama was possibly poisoned in 1989, and when the Dalai Lama chose a peasant boy as his reincarnation, Chinese officials spirited the child and his family away and replaced him with their own chosen one. The original choice hasn’t been seen in nine years. When the current Dalai Lama dies, it’s the Panchen Lama’s role to elect the next one; needless to say, a puppet can only elect another puppet.
What we are witnessing, between the shots of eternal statues, the pretty flowers, the devotional images the size of a mountainside, is “a slow and deliberate asphyxiation of the Tibetan Buddhist faith.” “Vajra Sky Over Tibet” diffuses its anger among droplets of unruffled belief, but by the end they’ve coalesced into storm clouds.