Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Interview: "10 Questions for the Dalai Lama" (2006)

Documentary filmmaker Rick Ray was given forty-five minutes, and a limit of ten questions, with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.

Instead of going the safe route of simply filming the interview, Ray does a brief recap of the tumultuous life of the religious leader, helpfully comparing his stature among his people as equal to Jesus Christ residing in the White House. The Dalai Lama is currently in exile in northern India, and to prepare for the interview, Ray immerses himself in the Buddhist experience, travelling across the country and encountering the poorest citizens along the way. China has been brutal to the country of Tibet in the past few decades after invading and conquering it with little resistance, eventually turning it into a cheesy tourist attraction for its people, and one question that is bothering Ray is "when is non-violence no longer an option?"

By the time Ray sits down for the interview, he decides to cover many other wide-ranging topics: why do the poor seem happier than the rich, how important is the preservation of culture and religion, what can a Far East Buddhist leader do about the tumult in the Middle East, and the Dalai Lama's similarities to another pacifist- India's Gandhi.

The Dalai Lama is a very soft-spoken and intelligent man, answering the questions without condescending to Ray. I like that in the face of the evils of the Khmer Rouge, or Hitler, you can practice non-violence but still protect oneself from immediate physical threat. You don't have to be a pushover. Likewise when dealing with China. The Dalai Lama says to engage the Chinese, not isolate them. He saw first-hand what the overpopulated country is capable of when dealing with his former country. As in politics, some religious people suffer from selfishness, which can taint one's outlook on the world. He also mentions overpopulation, preferring quality of life to quantity. He would know, dealing with two of the most populous nations on the planet.

Technically, Ray gets great use out of archive footage, and sometimes shows the Dalai Lama in a less than favorable light. He doesn't trash the leader, but he does mention the initial capitulation to China, and even some trivial facts (like how the Dalai Lama doesn't like festivals that center around and praise him). Ray has made a few documentaries from different locales in the world, and this experience helps this film. It is more than a filmed audience, and thankfully more than a breathless sanitized travelogue. Not enumerating the questions and walking the viewer through them helps, letting the Dalai Lama get his points across uninterrupted. I also liked the honesty of the Lama's personal secretary.

"10 Questions for the Dalai Lama" is a fresh look at a subject who has been covered by too many basic cable television biography shows in the past. If it makes the viewer want to know more about the man and the religion, then I think it has done its job. (* * * *) out of five stars.