The International Buddhist Film Festival is back! A conversation with Gaetano Maida – Buddhistdoor Global

After a two-year hiatus, the International Buddhist Film Festival (IBFF) returned for three days from December 9 to 12. There have been nine premieres from seven countries, and one of the highlights has been the popular Pawo Choyning Dorji film Lunana — A yak in the classroom. Despite restrictions imposed due to the pandemic, IBFF Executive Director Gaetano Maida has remained busier than ever, with this year’s film selection being particularly moving and meaningful. BDG sat down with Gaetano to discuss the cinematic highlights and artistic themes of this year’s festival.

Lunana movie poster. From imdb.com

Buddhadoor Global: Why did he Lunana — A yak in the classroom been so well received internationally?

Gaetano Maida: It is above all a beautiful story, well told. It has the added arthouse elements of a rare look at a beautiful, remote location and an emphasis on protagonists who are children (with young and compelling actors such as Pem Zam). However, I think the secret sauce is the cinematic connection with Khyentse Norbu, who is none other than Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. that of Lunana director, Pawo Choyning Dorji, was Norbu’s assistant director Vara and also the sound producer Hema Hema – Sing me a song while I wait, with which Lunana also shares cinematographer Jigme Tenzing.

With the wonderful Honey giver among dogs, by Dechen Roder (also directed by Jigme Tenzing), a burgeoning Bhutan-focused film community is growing and garnering well-deserved international attention.

BDG: You are also presenting a documentary on the Zen theme called Descent from the mountain. The theme of the film harkens back to the early days of meetings between Buddhist teachers and the psychedelic movement. How about his perspective and conclusion on the relationship between scientists and Buddhists?

DG: I think it’s an ongoing and evolving relationship, and who knows: maybe it has historical roots in India! Many earlier followers in the West took up Buddhist practice after being surprised and inspired by their experiences or experiences with entheogens and psychedelics. At the time, there was very little science to help assess the nature and variety of mental states stimulated by drugs, or by meditation, for that matter.

Things have changed over the years, especially in recent times with the attempt to decriminalize legitimate scientific studies with various mind-altering substances. These can now be compared to numerous studies via FMRI scans by advanced meditators such as Mingyur Rinpoche and Matthieu Ricard.

As we see in the movie, Buddhists explore the mind from the inside and scientists explore the mind from the outside. It is not yet clear whether they refer to the same “thing” or dimension. The film suggests that there is much to be learned from these efforts by all concerned, but the work is far from conclusive. The film takes a very entertaining approach to exploring all of these questions.

BDG: Let’s talk about the Buddhist film market. There are documentaries and fiction, but outside of that distinction, is there a preference for more anthropological films, like stories of Buddhists in remote areas, or philosophical themes like rebirth and karma? In other words, which themes do better and why?

DG: This is a crucial question that touches on the viability of the cinematic experience that we defend at the Buddha Film Foundation. Audiences absolutely embrace both well-made documentaries and dramatic works, regardless of thematic range or style. Having said that, we tend not to include films that are just hagiographic stories about teachers, whether alive or dead; these generally target communities in those traditions rather than the general audiences we have cultivated.

However, we have found that audiences are very divided. There is no such thing as a “Buddhist” audience. There are usually audiences for Chinese Buddhist stories, and for Tibetan Buddhist stories, and Japanese Buddhist stories, “Western” Buddhist stories, etc., but it is very rare that these audiences intersect.

In a way, this is a key part of our mission: to set up a big tent and include all participants, both on the content side and on the audience side. We have screened over 300 films from nearly two dozen countries, and we hope that by showing through cinema the diversity of Buddhist traditions and cultures we can help dissolve some of the silos that separate them. I must say that nowhere else can you see so many traditions in the same place at the same time, because there is not a single “Buddhism” but many “Buddhisms”, there is no strictly defined audience. as a “Buddhist”.

Descent from the mountain movie poster. From De downingthemountain.org

BDG: Who are some of the formative figures who contributed to the Bay Area’s rich Buddhist heritage, and what is the community like today?

DG: The San Francisco Bay Area has always been associated with all of the “early” American Buddhists. These include the first temples, which were built by Chinese immigrants to San Francisco in the 1850s; the first Buddhist publication in English, which was a newspaper called The Buddhist ray operating from 1887 to 1994 and based in Santa Cruz; the first resident Buddhist priests (who came from Japan and settled in San Francisco in 1899); the first Zen monastery, built in 1966 in Tassajara; and we can’t underestimate the deep resonance here of Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Alan Watts from the 50s and 60s.

In addition, several large Buddhist institutions have established themselves here: Spirit Rock, Nyingma Institute and Dharma College, San Francisco Zen Center, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, Plum Village’s Parallax Press, Buddhist Church of America, etc.

Finally, let’s not forget that there is a very large and diverse Asian population in the region, many of whom are from Buddhist cultures and continue to support all of their institutional and community elements here: Burmese, Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean. , Taiwanese, Thai, Tibetan, Vietnamese and more. In addition, UC Berkeley and Stanford both have highly regarded Buddhist studies programs with staffed faculty positions.

BDG: Talk a bit about your other event, the Burma Spring Benefit Film Festival. What types of films are shown at this festival?

DG: The Burma Spring Benefit Film Festival (BSBFF) was an instinctive response to the violent military coup and crackdown on dissent that began in February. The IBFF had presented a selection of films by graduates of the Yangon Film School a few years ago, and a few of us in the San Francisco Bay Area who all had ties to Myanmar (Alan Senauke , Kenneth Wong, Ellen Bruno, Jeanne Hallacy and I) came together to ask, “What can we do, what do we need? “

We concluded that with the closure of banks and many businesses, money was desperately lacking among those at risk of doing humanitarian aid or human rights work. .

All the films (we had 41 in June) were given to us for free, and the team organized a program of works about or made in Myanmar, with a special effort to introduce the filmmakers there (as long as their participation did not put them or their families at risk). There were of course a lot of documentaries, a few dramatic works, a few animated films, and a few performance films. We also had 10 live panel discussions with a large list of speakers; the recorded videos of these are published on the festival website and on the BSBFF YouTube channel. We raised almost US $ 50,000 in two weeks.

Fast forward to the present, and the news from Myanmar continues to be alarming and devastating (Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced this month to four years in prison in a court process widely condemned as illegal and unjust. ), with deaths, imprisonments, exiles, and attacks on ethnic states are regularly reported. We have decided to present an Encore edition starting from the anniversary of next year’s coup, February 1, and which will last two weeks, with the same goals: raising awareness in the international community and making donations. There is no set price for an all-access pass; any donation is eligible and no one will be refused for lack of money. We are currently organizing the curation and hope to find some good new films to add to the program. There will be one or two registered panels.

BDG: Thank you very much for your time, as always, Gaetano.

DG: It has been a pleasure, and I hope more audiences will enjoy the films we have put on.

See more

Beskop Bhutan
Descent from the mountain
Spring Benefit Festival in Burma

Related features of Buddhadoor Global

Film review: Khyentse Norbu seeks woman with fangs and mustache
Sing me a song: The impact of screens on a remote Bhutanese mountain village
Making Buddhist-influenced Films in an Extraordinary Era: An Interview with Gaetano Maida


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Gerald R. Schneider