Alix Sharkey of the London Evening Standard talked to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche about his film The Cup, showing throughout the world.
(Reproduced by kind permission of the Evening Standard.)
He is regarded as the incarnation of one of the greatest Buddhist saints. He rises daily at 4 a.m. to begin five hours of prayer and meditation. He studied philosophy from the age of nine until he was 23 and was personally tutored by the Dalai Lama.
Yet he has a flat in Notting Hill Gate, travels the world virtually non-stop, wears Armani shirts (maroon of course), and his award-winning directorial debut, The Cup, the first full-length Tibetan language film, is all about the link between religion, tradition and football.
Fortunately for the press, Khyentse Norbu – or to give him his full title, His Eminence Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche – wears his learning lightly, preferring to pose questions about football (“What about Kevin Keegan, is he any good?”) rather than discuss his own rigorous Buddhist training. Yet it was the gap between this formal education and the aspirations of his fellow students that inspired him to write and direct The Cup.
The story of a football-crazy young monk’s determination to watch the 1998 World Cup Final and the disruption this causes to the serene life of the monastery, Norbu’s delightful drama was selected for the critics’ fortnight at Cannes, has won prizes at festivals in Australia and Canada, and recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival in the US.
The Cup centers on 14-year-old Orgyen who idolizes Brazilian striker Ronaldo but wants France to win because, he says, “France always sticks up for Tibet.” After the monastic discipline master catches Orgyen and his pals sneaking out to watch one of the semifinals on TV in the village, they are put on extra kitchen duties for a month and all seems lost. Instead, they plead to have the game broadcast live in the monastery. The dilemma facing the elderly master and the discipline abbot, says Norbu, reflects the problem facing the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as a whole – how to maintain discipline in a rapidly changing world, and uphold ancient religious traditions in a refugee culture.
“The Cup is 95% based on a true story,” says the Bhutanese director, whose smile suggests a curious mix of serenity and mischief. “The characters in the film were actual monks in the college of Buddhist philosophy.”
With perfect symmetry, all the leading roles in The Cup were played by real-life monks and reincarnate lamas, while shooting took place in Chokling Monastery in the Himalayan foothills. Despite the fact that most of the cast had never seen a movie camera and that much of the dialogue was improvised, most scenes required only three takes – a tribute, he says, to the powers of concentration that the monastic cast brought to their work.
However, the 37-year-old Norbu admits, he also played on his religious status to “tyrannize” the cast and get the performances he wanted. So could he work as freely with Western actors who weren’t so worried about displeasing him?
I think so, he says, with another inscrutable smile. “In all my Buddhist training and my experience, I have become quite a good manipulator. So as long as my actors have ego, I can always manipulate them. If they don’t have an ego, then I have a problem!”
Norbu was first dazzled by movies as a 19-year-old, waiting for a delayed train in India, when he caught a glimpse of a Bollywood epic on TV. His love of cinema grew through an appreciation of Ozu, Tarkovsky and Satyajit Ray, who remain his favorite directors. After a brief directing course in New York, he worked as consultant on Bertolucci’s The Little Buddha, where he met and befriended Jeremy Thomas, executive producer of The Cup.
But why did someone so rooted in a text-based tradition, as Tibetan Buddhism is, decide to move into film? Why not write a book? “Maybe one reason is both my father and grandfather are considered great poets and I’m sort of expected to be a poet, too. The whole world moves because of expectations, no? So I guess I like to write poetry but using a different language, namely film. One of my dreams at the moment is to make a film based on haiku. But I didn’t think I will find a producer willing to throw his money into the ocean.”
Despite his penchant for poetic, character-based films, Norbu says that Natural Born Killers is one of his favorite movies because of its “realism.” Could he see himself making a film that involved sex, violence or drug-taking? He won’t rule out anything, he says, providing the result did not violate the fundamental Buddhist view.
“You see, the purpose of Buddhism is to make people understand reality, the ultimate reality. In order to do that, you can employ all kinds of methods: meditation, film, art, music.” Perhaps, surprisingly, his problem isn’t with the depiction of violence or sex per se, he says, but with Hollywood’s use of them to manipulate audiences and reinforce its own world view.
“Say you have a house, and you want to look inside it. There are many different ways you can look: through the window, through the door, through the keyhole and so on. But right now, Hollywood is so strong that we’re all forced to look at things the same way.” Finally, what qualities would this reincarnate scholar-saint regard as the most important for a filmmaker?
“Ah, well,” he says, flashing that wicked grin, “you see I’m brainwashed by the Buddhists, so I can only give you a Buddhist answer. I think a filmmaker has a huge responsibility and so they should have all the qualities that fit the Buddhist description of a perfect being – omniscient, omnipotent, compassionate, kind, patient, tolerant, all of that. Of course, you can’t have all that but even if you have a little bit – even if you pretend to have a little bit – I think that would help.Tags: dzongsar khyentse rinpoche, movies