By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Filmmaker Mickey Lemle first started filming the Dalai Lama in 1991, for a documentary he called “Compassion In Exile.” He’s back now with a new film studying the changes in the world, the changes in the Dalai Lama, and the leader’s pondering of his own end, and beyond. Unfortunately, the subject proves too great for a 90-minute running time. I was left with a renewed sense of awe and wonder, of possibility. And a lot of loose ends.
Not everything in the film disappoints. We follow long, meticulous preparations for celebrating the Dalai Lama’s long life, much detail given to the pageantry. But when the Dalai Lama himself shows up, he smiles and nods, and jokes and laughs, much as he’s always done. He isn’t afraid to be a great teacher, a great inspiration. But he loves humor. He acknowledges his belief that he’s reincarnated from a long line of religious leaders. But, with a smile and a chuckle, he says he got his sense of humor from his mother and he’s lucky it offsets the temper he got from his father.
I had not realized that the Dalai Lama’s flight from Chinese-overrun Tibet in 1959 meant upheaval and chaos, and sometimes worse, for his loved ones. We meet his brothers, and a sister, who remember barely escaping. We meet some of this most beloved and trusted advisers, not so lucky. We watch their creased faces, as they recall decades in Chinese prisons.
We watch the Dalai Lama with children, as part of a program to teach compassion and mutual respect. He seems very much at ease with the kids. Some of them are nervous and some of them call him “sir,” instead of the standard “Your Holiness.” He doesn’t mind. The kids aren’t polished speakers and aren’t expected to be. He does what he does with anyone of any age. He leans in, focusing intently on what the other person says. That may or may not have come naturally to him, but he’s been at it a long time. We see pictures of him alongside Mao Zedong, back when he thought he could negotiate Tibet’s freedom, or at least his autonomy. He admits with a headshake how that didn’t work out real well.
The Dalai Lama functions as a spiritual leader, political leader, cultural advocate, and, somewhat against his will, a celebrity in the shallower sense of the word. No 90-minute film could possibly follow him through all of that, and Lemle doesn’t try. But by trying to cover many bases, he leaves a hole in the middle of his film.
We meet a pair of doctors who present what they called an “Atlas of Emotions.” The Dalai Lama lends them support, and their findings look impressive enough. But we don’t learn nearly enough about their scientific research, and what determined their findings. One of the scientists admits that they sometimes prioritize helping people over the scientific method. Which is understandable in terms of wanting to help people, but doesn’t sound scientific. How did they determine that their results will help people?
The Dalai Lama makes some strange friends. George W. Bush makes an appearance, discussing his portrait of the Dalai Lama. With his staunchly conservative stances, he seems an unlikely bedfellow. And yet he was the first president to meet publicly with the Dalai Lama.
In the end, the 82-year-old man ponders what’s changed, and what hasn’t. Asked if he hates the Chinese leaders, he replies that he hates them only in weak moments, never in his more common strong ones. He allows that his focus on not hating the Chinese might have done more for himself, than for the Chinese.
He wants love to grow from within, and he wants everyone’s love to sprout upwards, then grow together until it subsumes hate. Whatever Mao Zedong meant by “Let a hundred flowers blossom,” he wants far more than that, from every living person on earth, giving love to persons, animals, and even insects.
A wonderful vision. And yet, he wonders if he’ll reincarnate to further it along. He wonders if he’ll ever get to return home, in any reincarnation. He wonders if the Chinese will claim him, claim they’ve got the next reincarnation, in a geopolitical shell game where their Lama will “proclaim” whatever the Chinese want. Lemle doesn’t get all of this, and his film suffers from its lack of focus. Then again, to get everything, you’d need to watch a lot more than any single film. And for the implications of what happens next, you need a lifetime of study.
“The Last Dalai Lama?” opens Oct. 6 and runs through Oct. 9 at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian Theatre, 805 East Pine Street in Seattle. For prices, showtimes, and other information, visit siff.net/year-round-cinema/the-last-dalai-lama.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.