Locals get a first look at Sundance with ‘Angry Monk’
Seeing a film at the Sundance Film Festival can be one of the toughest challenges a Parkite faces in late January. Scarce tickets, overabundant traffic, long lines and busy, busy town all conspire to keep many locals away from theatres during the annual event, but earlier in the month, Parkites will have at least one chance to catch an early piece of the festival.
On Jan. 5, at 7 p.m. in the Jim Santy Auditorium, the Sundance Institute will present its "Locals Only Preview" of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival Film with a screening of "Angry Monk Reflections on Tibet," which will screen in the World Documentary Competition.
The film is part of the monthly Sundance Institute Documentary Film Series and tells the story of a Tibetan monk, Gendun Choephel who lived from 1903-1951 by talking to modern-day Tibetans.
But the film isn’t simply a biography, rather it offers a view of Tibet that undercuts the popular clichs of the region, while addressing the complexities which are part of its modern and historical existence.
Swiss filmmaker Luc Schaedler, who directed and produced the film, said he first became interested in Tibet after traveling there in the late 1980s. There, he also discovered the story of Choephel, a monk who studied at the Drepung monastery in Lhasa and later traveled across Tibet and into India, discovering, as he went, a new view of his homeland and the importance of looking at that country with a critical questioning eye.
"He tried to bring back his experiences and bring them back to Tibet," said Schaedler.
But, the director noted, the ruling Tibetan monarchy fought Choephel and his ideas, imprisoning and marginalizing him before his death in 1951, shortly after the Chinese occupied his country.
"Gendun Choephel offers a very unique perspective of Tibet, because he’s from Tibet; he’s not Westernized, but he illustrates a much more modern perspective," said Schaedler. "He stands for Tibetan tradition in a much more modern, radical way."
Schaedler created "Angry Monk" to counter the prevailing views of historic Tibet as a peaceful "Shangri La" ruled by enlightened leaders and of modern Tibet as a country victimized and subjugated by Chinese rule. Schaedler said when he first traveled there and in his subsequent visits, that’s not what he saw.
"I encountered a completely different Tibet," he said.
Historically, he said, the country was ruled by a religious monarchy marked by its conservatism and isolationism. In the present day, he added, the people weren’t simply ruled by the Chinese.
"I encountered these people that, through all these years of the Chinese occupation, had preserved the Tibetan history," he said.
Those people, Schaedler noted, looked to Choephel as a role model, an example of how a Tibetan can take a critical view and work to change his or her own country.
"They’re looking for radical, revolutionary kinds of Tibetans," Schaedler noted.
"For me, it was important to show someone like Gendun Choephel that was a radical, and to show that some of that spirit still exists in Tibet among the young people," he added.
At the same time, the film does not take an anti-Chinese viewpoint. While it criticizes the Chinese government, it is also critical of the Tibetan culture. Schaedler said he never intended to make an investigative film about Chinese oppression in Tibet, rather, he said he wanted to present a comprehensive story of a few aspects of a region and its culture.
Ultimately, the film tells the story about how Choephel came to advocate a critical view of Tibet and Tibetan history, while at the same time telling the well-rounded story of modern Tibet and the people who live there, presenting a narrative that addresses the complexities and contradictions of the region.
According to Schaedler, the film’s subject allowed him to film most of it in Tibet, with some preparations.
He filmed on a trip in 2002, with an extremely small crew only himself, his cameraman, Filip Zumbrunn and a translator moving through Tibet and filming as they went.
"Our story was that we were normal tourists," said Schaedler.
He said they filmed mainly sights monasteries, markets and villages never interviewing or talking to the local people as they shot and never hiding the camera, so as they traveled the sight of them shooting would seem completely natural, even as they were being watched by government informants.
"That was a conscious decision I made, not to do that," he said.
The interviews, Schaedler said, came several years earlier, when he traveled to Tibet in the late 1990s and 2000, and then, he said, he never filmed in public, only revealing the camera when he was indoors with his interviewees.
By keeping the interviews to private places, he noted, he tried to minimize the danger in which he placed his sources, while at the same time allowing for more freedom in his filmmaking.
Schaedler is also sure to claim responsibility for viewpoints in the film, making a note of that as the piece concludes.
Overall, he said reactions to the piece have been positive, and even among critics, he noted one common response.
"All of them still believe that they learned something, regardless about how they feel about the filmmakers," said Schaedler.
He said he is excited to have his film shown at the special locals’ screening and at the film festival.
"When I was young and I heard about a film winning a prize at Sundance, you knew it was a good film," he said. "To me, Sundance is, as a film festival, a name that says a lot."
He said he was looking forward to the festival for a few years.
"Just to be there and experience [it] and see that mix of real independent film and sort of Hollywood glamour," he said
He will also be looking for a buyer for his film and looking to develop a discussion about Tibet and the changes it faces.
"I’m curious how people in the United States are reacting to the film," he said.
Parkites will get to see its North American premier, getting a first look at Schaedler’s view of Tibet, and with the first public screening of a 2006 Sundance film in the area, starting the inevitable march toward the ’06 festival.
"Angry Monk Reflections on Tibet" will screen at the Jim Santy Auditorium on Thursday, Jan. 5 at 7 p.m. as a part of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Series and as the "Locals Only Preview" of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. The screening is free and open to the public. For more information, visit http://www.sundance.org or call (801) 328-3456.
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