29 January 2010


by guest columnist Frederick Marx.  Follow him on Twitter.

“How far would you go to save your dying culture?”   

“Sometimes you have to give up your children to save them.” 

These two statements serve as “taglines” to JOURNEY FROM ZANSKAR – each of them describing the heart of the film.   But the film didn’t start out this way.    It took a long journey to arrive at those simple statements.

JOURNEY FROM ZANSKAR began in 2004 when an old friend called to ask for my help in supporting the Stongde monks of Zanskar.  “Zanskar?  Where the hell is that?”  Even the name seemed forgotten.  An Indian finger poking into the heart of central Asia, bounded by Tibet (China) on one flank and Pakistan on the other, Zanskar almost reaches Afghanistan.  Bounded by towering Himalayan mountains, this high altitude desert sits on a valley floor of 12,000 feet.  “Little Tibet” it’s sometimes called.  “Mountains?  Buddhists?  Dying culture?  Sounds good to me…”  I was in.

In April 2004 we sat around my kitchen table in San Francisco and talked through an initial plan to film Tenzin Choegyal’s long-awaited visit to the seven ancient monasteries of Zanskar in July.  Better known as the youngest brother of the Dalai Lama, TC (as he is called) is recognized as the reincarnation of Ngari Rinpoche – the spiritual leader of all the monasteries of Western Tibet.   As such, he is revered and beloved, despite his own skepticism on the subject.   We were also hopeful that the Dalai Lama himself would visit Zanskar in August.  Seemed like an auspicious time for a Zanskar story.

Like many of the best-laid plans, none of this ever happened.   I arrived in Delhi in early July with my crew of one - cameraman Nick Sherman – and two helpers.  For reasons still unclear to me, TC had cancelled his trip.  It was a huge disappointment – not only had our story evaporated but, having learned a great deal about Ngari Rinpoche, I was really disappointed not to meet him. 

Nevertheless, we flew to Leh, the capital of much better known Ladakh, and spent a few days getting acclimated, thinking about what else to shoot.  We spent some time at Helena Norberg Hodge’s wonderful Farm Project – kind of a reverse Peace Corps.  (Foreigners come there to get educated!)  Then we left relatively Westernized Ladakh for far more remote Zanskar.  En route with Geshe Yonten, I learned that he planned to take 15 children to a Tibetan school in Manali that Fall by trekking overland through 17,000 foot Shinku Pass.   “That’s our through-line!,” I thought.

We started filming right away as Geshe Yonten and Lobsang Dhamchoe began visiting families who wanted to send their children away to school. Those moments with families are rich, complex, and absolutely heart-rending.  As a parent, what would you discuss with a man who’s going to take one of your children away, possibly forever?  Struggling even to feed your children, you certainly would want your child to have a chance at a better life.  But at the price of not seeing them again for 10, 15, maybe 20 years?   The monks themselves had been through a similar process – leaving home for 10 years while they were still kids.  They knew the difficulties but they also knew what an education could do to change a life.

Following that first visit, Nick and I returned to India for the trek in early October.  On our drive from Leh to Padum we confided all our fears to Geshe.  It was a long list.  There were dangers both for us and the kids - altitude, cold, dehydration, exhaustion…   Smiling, he told us not to worry.    Unlike Zanskari Buddhists who don’t seem to stress out about anything, we worried.

The story of the trek as it appears in the film is our story too.  We were right there with them.  We shared the uncertainties, the cold, the disappointments, the fears.  At the same time the beauty, the generosity and concern, all the good humor – these were our delights too.  Since we didn’t have sufficient crew support, we had the fathers and monks help us carry gear; they served as production assistants.  Our equipment and “crew” were rarely with us in the same place at the same time.  Communication was also difficult, often impossible.  Physically, I had more difficulties with the sub-zero temperatures, snow and elevation than Nick but we both managed pretty well--up to the day we attempted to cross the Pass.

Like Geshe, on that day I thought I was going to die.  When we first set out that morning I was already struggling – slipping and falling, sweating, hyperventilating.  Nick kept up with the lead party and shot everything he could. Thanks to him the turning point of the film was captured.  He shot the pivotal scene when I wasn’t even there.  I was back with Geshe – huffing and puffing and hoping I’d make it over the Pass.  The thought “I’m too old for this” was probably the most benign thought I had that day.

Five days later when, by jeep, we finally reached Leh, Nick flew back to the States and I became a one man crew.  In addition to losing his visualizing talents, I lost my sounding board, confidante, and back-up crew.  I also lost his Canon GL2 camera, which had become our A camera.  All the footage from Leh onward was shot by me, much of it with the C camera – a cheap consumer handicam, because I couldn’t properly charge my batteries for the much better B camera – my JVC GY500. Ironically, the only battery problems we had on the whole trip were after we reached “civilization.”  I ended up giving myself a camera credit in the film not because I shot 20% of the story but because I didn’t want Nick to take the heat for my crappy footage! 

In Feb. 2005, we made a third trip to India to film the scene of the children meeting the Dalai Lama. Once in Dharamsala we didn’t know until the day before that it was actually going to be possible to meet with him.  We had all of fifteen minutes to get the material I knew was going to be the capstone scene for the whole film.  People ask me all the time what it was like to meet the Dalai Lama.  I tell them I was working!

One of our greatest challenges for the whole project turned out to be translation.   During the filming in Zanskar, we never had an adequate translator with us.  Not only could we not speak directly with the families and the kids, we never knew with certainty what was happening at any moment.   Geshe and Dhamchoe filled us in as best they could, but their own limited command of English sometimes made our communication difficult.  In hindsight, my biggest regret is that I didn’t learn Zanskari myself.  I could have made a different film - highlighting the children more – and sharing more about their families and their back-stories.  

Back in the U.S., it was also nearly impossible to find translators for the 45 hours of Zanskari footage.   Little did I know when we began that only a handful of speakers in the world are fluent in both Zanskari and English.  In the end, Geshe did the bulk of the translation himself while on a visit to the US.  Through an elaborate game of telephone, he translated the spoken Zanskari into Tibetan.  Then a Tibetan student translated each line from Tibetan into English, all the while writing down time codes.   They also translated 20 hours of Tibetan and Hindi.  This painstaking process took over a month. 

So it was only in April of 2008 that for the first time I could sit down with complete transcripts of our footage and discover what it was we had actually shot almost four years before!  What a delight!  I made many discoveries that I had no idea existed in the footage.  It was also fun to hear some of what Geshe and Dhamchoe had been saying about me and Nick!

Constructing the proper storyline took about a year, helped in no small way by co-editor Joanna Kiernan.  I spent most of summer 2008 putting subtitles on hours of raw footage and editing the first string-out.  In the Fall, Joanna edited the first rough cut, setting a basic structure for the story. Then from December onward I brought the film home.  Due to the usual lack of finances we didn’t finish until October, 2009.

The journey that has been JOURNEY FROM ZANSKAR has been informed at every juncture by the wisdom, humor, and acceptance of Geshe Lobsang, Lobsang Dhamchoe, the gracious and joyful monks of Stongde monastery, and the amazing resilience of the people of Zanskar, from the youngest child to the oldest grandmother.  There were times in the last few years, when, overwhelmed with anxiety and stress over how I was going to finish the film, I would drop my head to my desk and weep.  The one thing that always pulled me through was the film itself.  I would pick up the editing again and see Geshe laugh in the face of crushing disappointment, witness a starving mother weep bittersweet tears giving up her daughter for a chance at a better life elsewhere, hear the children sing while riding into a dangerous and unknown future, observe Yangjor help Jigmed’s blinded father cross a stream, watch Tsultim reach out to share with me his first ever taste of nuts.  Their example fortified and inspired me.

How could I not make this film?

UPDATE February 5, 2010:
Here is the current release schedule for JOURNEY FROM ZANSKAR:
World premiere: Feb. 12, 5:00 pm., Boulder IFF
Big Sky FF: Feb. 15, 4:45 pm.  
Houston Fundraiser Screenings: Feb. 20-21 dollybrman@aol.com.
Documentary Edge (New Zealand): many dates in March
Cleveland (CIFF) - March 20-21
Rubin Museum, NY: May 5-12

Frederick Marx  is an internationally acclaimed, Oscar and Emmy nominated producer/director with 35 years in the film business.   He was named a Chicago Tribune Artist of the Year for 1994, a 1995 Guggenheim Fellow, and a recipient of a Robert F. Kennedy Special Achievement Award.  His film HOOP DREAMS played in hundreds of theatres nationwide after winning the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was the first documentary ever chosen to close the New York Film Festival.  It was on over 100 “Ten Best” lists nationwide and was named Best Film of the Year by critics Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Gene Shalit, and Ken Turran and by the Chicago Film Critics Association. Ebert also named it Best Film of the Decade. It won numerous prestigious awards, including an Academy Nomination (Best Editing), Producer’s Guild, Editor’s Guild (ACE), Peabody Awards, the Prix Italia (Europe’s top documentary prize) and The National Society of Film Critics Award.  The New York, Boston, LA, and San Francisco Film Critics all chose it as Best Documentary, 1994.  Utne Reader named it one of 150 of humanity’s “essential works,” the Library of Congress recently added it to its prestigious National Film Registry and the International Documentary Association named it the Best Documentary Ever.


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