Beyond the timeless lesson of this remarkable film, "Travellers and Magicians" breaks historic cinematic ground. Directed and written by Khyentse Norbu, whose semi-autobiographical film "The Cup" won international kudos, "Travellers and Magicians" is the first movie ever filmed in Norbu’s homeland of Bhutan.
Isolated high in the Himalayas, sandwiched between India and Tibet, Bhutan is populated by a Buddhist community that prides itself in its ancient traditions and its harmony with the environment. A strict tourism code limits visitors to 5,000 per year—as recently as 1960 no visitors were allowed access-- insuring the protection of this pristine locale. Forty-five years ago, the kingdom of Bhutan existed without common modern amenities, a national currency, paved roads, schools, hospitals, post offices and telephone service. The national language—Dzongkha—was chosen among more than a dozen dialects only forty years ago, with its use largely oral. The making of "Travellers and Magicians" using the Dzongkha language contributed to creating the written version of this ancient tongue and further aiding the communication among these gentle people.
The story of "Travellers and Magicians" is a moving reflection of the beliefs of these dedicated people, and this is not at all surprising since Norbu is also a respected Buddhist monk, a member of one of Bhutan’s most noble families who teaches Buddhist philosophy all over the world.
Like Norbu’s "The Cup," a humorous tale about a group of Tibetan monks obsessed with the World Cup soccer finals, "Travellers and Magicians" uses non-professional actors and the results are amazing.
A restless government official, Dondup, longs to leave his bucolic community of waving flags and archered monks to live in the United States. Sporting an "I love NY" tee-shirt and grooving on American rock ‘n roll, the long-haired Dondup stands out among his rural Buddhists. An opportunity to exit Bhutan for the U.S. via an old friend gives Dondup the perfect chance for escape—even though he is exchanging his good job to pick grapes in California. "There’s nothing here," he moans, "no cool girls."
Countless obstacles delay his journey to his destination meeting point, an understandable plight in a rural community devoid of clocks or any sense of schedule. He misses the bus and sits waiting on a country road with an old apple peddler. Eventually a monk, a papermaker and his lovely daughter join the rag-tag group. At first Dondup is stand-offish, separating himself from his fellow travelers. But he becomes intrigued when the monk—a wise man who sees the turmoil in Dondup’s soul—tells a fascinating tale of Tashi, another young man on a journey for a better life.
A student at the village’s magic school, Tashi scoffs his teacher’s lectures as "mere superstition" and confides to his brother his longing to visit the neighboring village where "there are lots of beautiful girls." A drink of wine—pickled by a mysterious drug—takes Tashi to a remote forest, an old man and his beautiful young wife. A sort of Bhutan version of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" unfolds with Tashi embroiled in a soap opera he never envisioned.
Filmmaker Norbu skillfully weaves these two stories together, jumping back and forth with the monk as transitional narrator. Set amidst the backdrop of the breathtaking Himalayas and Bhutan’s green countryside, "Travellers and Magicians" is a visual feast as well as a cautionary tale. A testament to the gifted Norbu’s considerable talents and unusual background, this unforgettable film should not be overlooked.
View from Nowhere
Other Views from Nowhere
TRAVELLERS AND MAGICIANS - Director Interview
Noa Jones in Interview with Khyentse Norbu - December 2002
Q Why do you make films?
A I make films because I love films. I love the whole concept — telling a story with pictures, the framing, the pacing, the sound, the dialogue. I like the fact that you can present what you see in your mind’s eye. You look at the whole picture, but your mind has chosen to focus only on one thing - let’s say, this person’s eyes - and you can demonstrate that choice, that vision within the four corners of film. Film is one of the most powerful mediums that we have today.
Q But don’t you do it for the money too?
A First of all I am not that keen on making money. I still consider myself a yet uncorrupted artist. Besides if I want to make money there are many other ways to do so. In fact filmmaking is very risky, especially the films that I have been making where you have no entertainment, no sex, no violence, If I really wanted to make money I would have chosen to make Hollywood, even Bollywood-style films, avoiding the agony of rejection by festivals, not being liked by critics. It doesn’t have to be artistic. As long it’s entertaining, you make money. Having said all that, in the future I might actually do commercial films because being artistic and commercially successful can be quite challenging.
Q How did you get the money to make this film?
A Because my first film “The Cup” was successful, I had the interest and confidence of international distributors. Based on this I was able to interest investors. Q What will you do if this film is also successful and you make a lot of money? A I doubt there will be any financial profit. For me, the mark of success will be if we manage to convince film festivals to show it and if it reaches a large audience. I’d like to remind you that this is a foreign language film, in other words it is an art film. Therefore, it has a very, very limited audience. Most art filmmakers will tell you there isn’t much financial profit involved. The reward comes in the whole experience of filmmaking and expressing what you want to express, how you want to express it. Also for myself, it is an opportunity to build my CV so eventually some crazy financier might want to throw $100,000,000 dollars at my future projects. I want to make a film based on the life of Buddha. In order to convince producers and financiers, I need certain experiences.
Q Will you make more films in Bhutan?
A Yes. I have several more stories that I have written particularly for Bhutan. One that I hope to make is a simple love story. I notice that many Bollywood and Hollywood films over sensationalise romance and it doesn’t necessarily happen like that. It can be a very simple, very ordinary, and at times corny, but at the same time significant like missing someone’s presence.
Q Are you putting spiritual messages into your film? Is this a way of teaching dharma?
A People ask “you are a Buddhist lama, why do you make film?” This question is a bit puzzling. It indicates to me that from certain standpoints working in film is viewed as almost sacrilegious, like I am breaking some kind of holy rule. At the same time, I understand. People automatically associate film with money, sex, and violence because there are so many such films coming out of Hollywood and Bollywood. But if only they had access to films by the likes of Ozu, Satyajit Ray, Antonioni, people would understand that filmmaking doesn’t have to be like that. In fact it is a tool. Film is a medium and Buddhism is a science. You can be a scientist and at the same time, you can be a filmmaker. Moreover, it’s not as if Buddhism, like some other religions, is against idolatry. For centuries Buddhism has adopted the method of statues and artistic representation in order to express messages of compassion, love, wisdom. Film could be seen as a modern day thangka [a traditional Buddhist painting]. Having said that, I am not claiming that either of my films are spiritual, though because of my obvious background, you might find a little bit of Buddhist influence in both works.
Q So is this proper behaviour for a Rinpoche?
A I don’t know. But first of all, what I can tell you is that between ethics, morality, and wisdom, Buddhism has always put more emphasis on wisdom. Wisdom surpasses behaviour. Some of the more conservative generations might raise their eyebrows at what I do and what I say. But what they have forgotten is that their so-called “right thing to do” and their revered traditions were once upon a time very modern and progressive. I have often heard that some people feel I am westernised, I guess partly because of my association with westerners, but I totally disagree. I may be slightly modern, this is true. But when it comes to Buddhist teaching itself, I totally oppose people attempting to make Buddhism more adaptable to the west or to the modern world. It is not required. Buddhism has always been up to date. From the moment Buddha taught, the essence of the teachings hasn’t changed. And it shouldn’t change. For instance the Buddha’s teachings that all compounded things are impermanent can never be changed. It’s not as if after 2,000 years some compounded things have now become permanent. Anyone who tries to modernise Buddhadharma is making a grave mistake. It’s important to make a distinction between the culture and Buddhism. As the wisdom of Buddha travelled to different countries over different ages, the culture and tradition of each particular time or place became intrinsic to the teaching. Culture is indispensable because without it you cannot interpret the teaching. Dharma is the tea and culture is the cup. For someone who wants to drink tea, tea is more important than the cup. The cup is also necessary but it is not the most essential. Hence, you can say that I try not to be attached to the cup. If necessary, I am ready to change the cup, and for that reason you can say that I have a modern mind.
Q Bhutan has managed to keep its traditional culture,neary intact - from the language to the architecture to the dress. You might say they have a very old, rare cup that hasn’t changed for many generations. But it still works. They pride themselves on this exquisite cup and culture hunters pay large sums of money to pay a visit, to take a sip from its precious lip. Does Bhutan have to change its cup?
A Change is inevitable. Bhutanese must realise that. But Bhutan must change with its own character. Modernisation of Bhutan is fine but what I am worried about is that Bhutanese culture could be levelled by it’s immediate and influential neighbours. While Bhutanese cultural preservationists might spend their time worrying about the invasion by western culture, they don’t realise that the Bollywood culture has already insinuated itself into Bhutan. The arrival of ZTV, a sports channel that only shows cricket, Hindi soap operas playing in shops in Thimphu - that worriesmme. It’s easy for a tourist who comes for two weeks to get enchanted because they feel that they’re in a medieval time warp but it is very dangerous for Bhutanese to fall into that trap. The tourist doesn’t have to stay there but the Bhutanese must go on and face the 22nd century.
Q What do you mean that Bhutan must change with its own character?
A While the Bhutanese live by values which agree, on the most part, with universal systems and morals, there is also a unique set of values, particular to Bhutan that is unlike anything found in other Asian countries. For example, in many parts of Bhutan the subject of sex is not so taboo as it is in China, India or even Tibet. While a puritanical Tibetan, Chinese or Indian might think the Bhutanese are primitive upon seeing phalluses painted on walls and hanging here and there, what they don’t realize is that non-existence of such inhibition can be a blessing. Other cultures have lost this sense of freedom or openness, in turn possibly making them into sexually repressed societies. So called sophistication may have made their minds narrow and rigid, depriving them of a source of happiness. Unfortunately, Bhutanese may be learning to have that self-consciousness.
Q You admire Ozu, Ray, and Antonioni. Those are pretty sophisticated filmmakers. Do you think the average Bhutanese will respond to their films?
A Ozu and Ray are not even widely known in their own native land. This kind of film doesn’t appeal to the audience and this is the same in Bhutan. This is unfortunate but the filmmakers have to work very hard. In many ways there are so many bad films and the blame actually goes to the audience because that’s what they want. The audience must demand better. Q What do you think about the Bhutanese films you’ve seen? A For a nation that doesn’t have a film school or any sort of school for media arts, and no access to film equipment or even good films, I must say I am very impressed. The filmmakers in Bhutan must now remember to create and keep their own style.
Q You are referred to as a Tibetan Buddhist lama, teaching Tibetan Buddhism, but you were born in Bhutan. Can you please clarify?
A I guess the concept of reincarnation and the laws of citizenship and naturalisation don’t work together. I am recognised as a reincarnation of one of the great Tibetan masters — although I feel that for the first time in the history of karma, karma made a mistake. Regardless, in this life I am Bhutanese. And in many ways, I am proud of being Bhutanese. But my Buddhist training comes from the Tibetan tradition, so I feel very loyal and sympathetic to Tibetan culture and people. While I am not a Tibetan citizen, I have undertaken the responsibility of several Tibetan monasteries and schools and I’ve done this for a couple of reasons. First, as a service to the Buddhadharma which, broadly speaking, Tibetans are maintaining at the moment by preserving it as a living system. And secondly, because I am a reincarnation of this Tibetan master, I am entrusted to continue his work.
Q What was it like to work in Bhutan?
A Aside from the actual process of filmmaking, this time there was something else that I really enjoyed. For the first time I had the opportunity to work with the ordinary Bhutanese people – sit together with them, eat with them, travel with them. I have experienced so many things that I have never had the opportunity to before in Bhutan like learning how to put on a kira. This has been very important to me.
Q Does this mean you’ll spend more time in Bhutan?
A I have been asked jokingly and at times sarcastically by Bhutanese why I am always in the west. Why do lamas like myself go to the west or outside of Bhutan when I should stay in Bhutan and help the Bhutanese. I have been actually thinking about this. I have been thinking about how I could help Bhutan. I could do big public wang ceremonies. I could do annual drupchens. I could build big monasteries and sit on thrones and wear ceremonial hats and give teachings. But I feel a little reluctant to do that and there are several reasons why. Understand, I am not opposed to doing such ceremonies. They have their own purpose. And I even do them sometimes. But I feel that there are already enough lamas who do that in Bhutan. I think there are other methods for me to reach people. In the past I have often felt that I am sitting on a big throne and all my so-called students are on the ground looking at me, in awe of me, they dare not ask questions, they dare not express their problems or their feelings. Now, the lamas are supposedly like doctors and the students like patients. But if the patient cannot speak to the doctor freely, the doctor won’t know how to diagnose. It’s all very well having a beautiful ceremony and all that, but such things can be obstacles in disguise. They create a big gap between me and the people. In the west students have less of that gap. They express what they want to express, they ask questions, they cry in front of me, they laugh in front of me and I get close to them. They see both my bad side and my good side. And it is important for me to have that kind of relationship. I remember once when I was in east Bhutan a school invited me to teach and I was very happy to do so. I accepted the invitation but I told the organisers ‘let’s make it informal.’ Upon arrival there was all the usual incense and scarves and the line up of people and even worse I was up on the throne. I felt awkward but I didn’t have any choice but to accept these things. After all, they did it with their heart. So there I sat on the throne. The students asked their prearranged questions, trembling to ask me anything at all. This is not how to reach the young Bhutanese.
Q What do you want to do?
A I want to teach the young Bhutanese people. I have been told by many Bhutanese that there is an emergence of other religions in the country and I can understand why. Because these missionaries don’t sit on a throne. The missionaries are available to talk to, whereas with lamas like myself, apart from the usual habitual blessings (putting my hands over their heads) and audiences, there is little communication and practically no philosophical exchange. I would like to sit next to the Bhutanese young people and let
them talk about anything - drugs, sex, money - whatever they want to talk about. This is why I didn’t hesitate when I was invited to a nightclub in Thimphu. If it wasn’t for the bad music, I would have stayed longer.
Q What do you see in the young Bhutanese people you’ve met?
A The young Bhutanese are so open and so fresh. Even though they may not have extensive Buddhist education, just the fact that they were born and raised in a Buddhist country means the energy is there. Like in Thailand you see a sort of gentleness that comes from Buddhist influence. Before we lose this I think it is important that they at least have the chance to explore Buddhism, even sceptically analyse it. If they don’t choose it after this exploration, that’s up to them, of course we can’t force them to become Buddhist. But if we don’t even give them an opportunity to explore, then we are not doing our job. Young people are different than they were centuries ago. Times have changed. You cannot convince young people that if they light a butter lamp they will go to heaven. You must give them reasons. When you give them reasons you have to do so according to their emotions and their habits. They are trained to ask questions and that’s good because that means they are trained to think, not just copy. And Buddhism, right from the beginning, encourages one to challenge. It’s not as if Buddhism doesn’t have answers to these modern questions. It does have answers. It stands up to argument, welcomes argument. Many westerners are becoming Buddhist for that very reason. Young western students have told me that they are attracted to Buddhism because many other popular religions on which they were raised are faith-oriented belief systems that don’t offer argument or philosophical analysis. Isn’t it ironic that in Bhutan, a Buddhist country, we are relying on blind faith to attract young people instead of using the very tool we have, the ability to analyse. We are driving our people away from the dharma using what they are trying to escape from. It is the lamas’ fault for isolating ourselves. We’ve alienated ourselves too much from them. I feel sometimes that I am a prisoner of my own system. I look out from the window from the top of my throne and I see these young people who are wanting direction but no one is giving them any. All they get is symbols and blessing cords. People these days are not satisfied with it and rightfully so. Buddhism is much more than a symbol or touching the head. Bhutan puts strong emphasis on diklam nam sha - proper etiquette and so on. In fact, I have no intention of discouraging etiquette in our culture. I know very well that the etiquette - the politeness and gentleness - is one of the great strengths of Bhutanese culture. But our people must learn the essence of why we should be polite, why we should have diklam nam sha. And I believe that if our people gain knowledge of these essential things, the form will come automatically.
Q I have heard that the Royal Government of Bhutan is gearing toward democracy, what do you think about that?
A Personally I am not keen on that. I believe that all these systems are well-intended but I don’t believe that one particular system can work for everyone. In fact, I don’t believe that every human being on Earth has to learn one particular system. If everyone has to follow one system they may not necessarily get benefit from it. Moreover, having a good system or a philosophy is one thing but to put it into practice is a whole other matter. Human beings are generally selfish and egocentric; people don’t care for the masses, for the country, for the environment etc. I just can’t imagine every single person becoming a perfect democrat or a perfect communist. It’s like Buddhism. It’s a wonderful philosophy, it’s a wonderful system. But Buddhism is different from Buddhists. Within Buddhist institutions we see downfalls, corruptions. No system has worked thoroughly in this world. Most acclaimed democratic countries are actually dictated by corporations and some of these democratic countries dictate other smaller countries. I am not pro or antimonarchy but you can say I am pro His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck. He cares for the country. If Bhutan adopts democracy now, I fear all the trees will be chopped, water will become polluted, crime will increase.
Q What are your favourite movies?
A There are so many. At the moment I like many of the Iranian neo-realistic films. I recently saw a film called The Guru and I liked it very much not so much because of the filmmaking itself but the content. It seemed the Indians were laughing at themselves and that demonstrates to me the maturity and sophistication of that society. As an Asian society we are so shame-oriented and we definitely need to learn to laugh at ourselves publicly.
Q How did you come up with the story?
A Every time I travel from west to east in Bhutan, I see these people waiting for cars. That sight for me is something very sentimental and I’ve always thought I would write a story about them. The story by a Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata called Izuni Odoriko also gave me some ideas. A big part of the film is actually adapted from a Buddhist fable.
Q What was the hardest part of making this film?
Q What would you have done differently?
Q What is your favourite scene in the film?
A Dondup and the monk’s first encounter.
Q Will you ever direct a film set in the west with western actors? A Yes, if I have the opportunity. Q Which of the western actors do you like? A Alec Guinness and Anthony Hopkins. Q Which western actresses do you admire?
A Kate Winslet because she has the most sexy hips.
Q Who is your favourite philosopher?
A Chandra Kirti because he peels you systematically.
Q So you plan to make more films?
A Yes. I don’t see myself changing my profession into filmmaker but I definitely might make a few more films. Making the second film created a lot of pressure because while the first one is kind of a novelty, the second one is where one is tested. I hope people’s expectations are not sky high.
Thank you, Rinpoche.