12 February 2010

Breathing in Colorado Springs

by guest columnist Frederick Marx.  Follow him on Twitter.

Having been a practicing Buddhist for 22 years and a filmmaker for 35 I suppose it’s not surprising I do my best to combine the two practices into one.  “Follow your breath” is the mantra I return to again and again in tense and sometimes harrowing situations.  Maybe in some later post I’ll go into more detail, offering a primer on meditation.

For now just understand that I use my awareness of my breath (“in breath, out breath”) to stay rooted in my body, in the moment, and not let my brain run riot with thought - driven regularly enough by fear, driven occasionally by something like panic. I had the opportunity to practice this recently at a [JOURNEY FROM ZANSKAR] fundraiser screening we had in Colorado Springs.

“BUDDHISTS RIOT!” is not a headline you often see. But that’s almost what we had on our hands.

After stories about our film ran in the local newspaper and the free weekly, the number of attendees skyrocketed from 106 to over 200 in the final two days before the screening. The lovely Colorado College theater originally booked could only hold 110. The theater was jammed and there were still 90+ out in the lobby.

My cameraman Nick Sherman had his own seat hijacked. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, this was to be his triumphant, “local hero returns” moment. His parents were there and they co-sponsored the event. Nick had chosen a prime seat in the middle of the theater in advance. But a motivated couple just tossed aside the twine marking it off and plopped themselves down. When Nick confronted them they traded off excuses and shifted the blame until he finally gave up. He eventually grabbed a different, less ideal seat. The atmosphere was getting tense.

“Breathe, breathe…”

One of the Springs Mountain Sangha* organizers mentioned that they originally thought of booking the building’s bigger 400 seat theater.  But now it was too late.  The doors were locked; this was Sunday and no one had the key. Another woman suddenly appeared at my side.  Another of the sangha members?   I’m still not sure.   She said that the adjacent room had a video projector.   We tried the door… open! I walked to the equipment console, powered everything on, popped in a 2nd DVD and held my breath. (Hey, that counts as long as you’re doing it consciously!) Within seconds the image came up on the bare white wall. While I figured out how to route the sound to the speakers, the team was already busy setting up 100 folding chairs, switching off the lights and pulling the shades. Then I went back next door to introduce the film and get it rolling.

Within ten minutes I was back. 100 people were in their seats, the room was dark, and we were ready to go. I thanked everyone for their patience and understanding. No one seemed to mind – the mood in the room was upbeat. They were glad to get in.

Their passionate interest was rewarded. They gave us a standing ovation. The film’s first ever. Nick and I tag-teamed the Q&A, each of us taking one audience for 10-15 minutes, then trading off. My only regret was that I wasn’t able to hear Nick’s answers to questions.   Having done so many of these fundraisers myself, I was looking forward to hearing his different perspective on key filmmaking events.

We were still answering questions well over half an hour after each film had finished. I never saw an audience less motivated to get to the refreshments! Though very few people had left, I finally pulled the plug.


The organized, dedicated, and warm support from the sangha could not have been better.  Sarah Bender, the principal sangha teacher and the woman who originally invited me, Liz Cramer and Ann Carlisle who made it all happen, and the team of other sangha members who worked the doors, took money, made Xeroxes, put out treats, and managed the large crowd with warmth and humor.  What gracious folks!

So I’ve learned: when situations get tense and it seems essential to act, act now and decisively! When my mind is screaming “do something!” the best thing to do usually is nothing. Just breathe. Be present. Do nothing. Solutions often have a way of magically appearing. Like the woman who knew about the facility next door. But even if the solutions don’t appear you’ll still be ahead of the game because you won’t make an ill-considered action. Ideally, you won’t even utter an ill-conceived word. You can just stand there like a lump, like I do, doing nothing.


“Sangha” is a Buddhist term meaning, roughly, “community.”

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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