Most filmmakers love to call attention to themselves, but whatever extroverted tendencies John Bush possesses were kept well in check during the production of “Vajra Sky Over Tibet.” Shot on location in Chinese-occupied Tibet without the permission of the ruling authorities, Bush surreptitiously captured an ancient culture valiantly resisting efforts by the Communist Chinese authorities to asphyxiate its religious traditions and pervert the Tibetan peoples’ right to self-determination. The resulting film of is a remarkable tribute to the Tibetan will to survive in the face of a brutal Chinese occupation regime.
“Vajra Sky Over Tibet” also presents a magnificent understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. Using the surviving art within the Tibetan holy sites and the relatively few public religious celebrations allowed by the Chinese, the film carefully details the profound tenets of this faith. Rarely has a documentary presented religion with such skill and eloquence.
Although “Vajra Sky Over Tibet” is the third part of Bush’s “Yatra Trilogy” of documentaries (the previous segments were “Dharma River” and “Prajna Earth”), it stands on its own as a brilliant work of art. The film is currently playing in an art house platform release; a DVD release should take place next year.
Film Threat caught up with Bush at his New York office to discuss the creation of this new film.
When you were in Tibet, was anyone there aware you were shooting this film? Or was it just assumed you were a tourist with a camera?
We were there on pilgrimage, my partner Nadine and I, and appeared non threatening as I was simply recording the magnificence of what still remains of this culture. We were under intermittent official surveillance. Police out of uniform checked us out repeatedly but for the most part we were flying beneath the radar. Some Japanese tourists had better equipment than I did. I was welcomed into many of these places as a filmmaker from the western Buddhist community. Tibetans want the world to know their exquisite traditions are still alive but seriously endangered.
The cinematography in this film is extraordinary. What equipment did you use to capture the imagery for the film?
Thank you, but of course this is Tibet, it is a truly beautiful place. Things reveal themselves spontaneously on pilgrimage and looking through the lens at these special times can be a form of prayer for me. The more I open to seeing literally what is there the more it is manifested. It is a meditation.
The beauty and poignancy of what I was seeing in Tibet was overwhelming at times and I would need to step away from the camera. Capturing the essence of these sacred places and the devotional will of the Tibetan pilgrims were powerful experiences that are shared abundantly in the footage.
One time, alone inside one of the galleries of the astonishing Gyantse Kumbum, I was filming a large powerful red Buddha in whose folded hands someone from the Chinese government had placed a large portrait of the boy impostor Panchen Lama (China imprisoned the child chosen by the Dalai Lama’s representatives as the Panchen Lama, the second holiest leader in Tibet Buddhism, and replaced him with a child of their choosing). This is one of the film’s stories. I felt ambiguous and a bit compromised shooting it and reflected on this painful and grotesque imposition for the Tibetans. Just at that moment my tripod unexpectedly collapsed and my camera crashed to the floor. This was beyond coincidence. It felt like a wrathful deity had asserted the raw truth. I packed up and returned to my hotel with a high fever and delirium.
The game was to not attract too much attention. The equipment I was using needed to be minimal. I shot the whole film with a Sony VX 2000 – a prosumer Mini DV 3 chip camera that is quite portable but of excellent broadcast quality. The entire film was shot only in existing light so we kept a low profile.
I was happy with the outcome – most people assume it was shot on 35mm film. It looks wonderful in theaters.
“Vajra Sky Over Tibet” is being self-distributed. Why did you opt for the D.I.Y. approach to distribution?
This is a hybrid distribution that is part of a strategic releasing plan. Because of its unique spiritual nature we felt we could market the film better than any one else to its core audience. We could not take the chance of a distributor dropping the ball because they didn’t “get” it and get behind it. We feel a fundamental responsibility to get this important story out there. The wonderful gift of The Dalai Lama’s endorsement is also a prime motivator in having the film seen by as many as possible.
We retained all of our rights but have partnered with different venues for screening the film. We worked with Landmark for the first six theatres and are now, by ourselves, booking our 23rd city. There are special events like recently when 650 people came one night to the exquisite Maui Arts & Cutural Center to see the film.
The releasing sequence was this: first opening at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, playing in the Buddhist community, playing at international festivals, then an ongoing national release to select commercial theaters which continues, and, finally, playing at top tier cultural centers and art museums around the world.
For the home video release on DVD we are now having meaningful conversations with established distributors. We need to work with someone who has great market penetration and also sees the special qualities of this film and the entire Yatra Trilogy.
It is actually one long film ending in “Vajra Sky Over Tibet.” Television placement is in the preliminary stages. The film is created to play to a world market interested in the current situation in Tibet.
Will you be returning to Tibet to make another film, or are you moving on to another project and focus?
We are definitely now in the eye of the Chinese authorities who have tried at times to interfere with the film being seen. Some say my getting into Tibet may not be the problem but getting out may be. I would love to go to other parts of Tibet as well as some of the great Buddhist pilgrimage sites in China. We will see.
I am currently in post-production on a dance art film called “Seasons of Light” shot entirely in outdoor venues of New York City. It is a collaboration with my partner – acclaimed choreographer and dancer, the French born Nadine Helstroffer – and her ensemble of six other dancers.
I am now preparing to seek funding for an important new documentary feature also involving the intertwining of spirituality and politics. I look forward to talking about it at a later time. We are now looking for investors and partners.
Many people are unaware of the depth and scope of the situation in Tibet. Outside of this film, where can they find out more information about the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the threat it presents to the Tibetan culture?
“Vajra Sky Over Tibet” deals exclusively with the current restraints on religious freedom but there are many more aspects to the current struggle there. It falls to us in the West to help save Tibet before it is too late. One may learn more by setting a computer alert for Tibet and also by visiting some of the following web sites for news and actions to take:
International Campaign for Tibet: http://www.savetibet.org/
Students for a Free Tibet: http://www.studentsforafreetibet.org/
The Dalai Lama Foundation: http://www.dalailamafoundation.org
Tibet support groups: http://www.tibet.org/
The Office of Tibet, NY: http://www.tibetoffice.org/en/
Tibet news web site: http://www.phayul.com/
Posted on November 15, 2006 in Interviews by Phil Hall
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