A Film Adventure: “Daughters of Dolma”
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Energy, Perseverance and Youthful Discovery
Increasingly we find Buddhist Film Festivals popping up in cities around the world for audiences of all ages and backgrounds - there are films with religious and spiritual messages, cultural stories, narratives of history and hardship… and journeys of self-discovery occurring in the unfolding of the tales on screen. In two short hours, through cinematography and story telling, we are transported to another realm for encounter and investigation.
In this interview with Buddhistdoor International (BDI), we meet with a special group of students from St. Andrews University in Scotland that share an adventure together and ultimately lead us to the movie theatre. They introduce us to their creative process and how Buddhism has intersected with their lives in unexpected ways:
Meet the Daughters of Dolma Team:
Alex Co – Chief Visionary
Tenzin Dolma – Translator
Adam Miklos – Director, Editor and Writer
Stefan Salow – Productions Manager
Nadezhda (Nadia) Buhova – Communications Manager
Kasia Bylow-Antkowiak – Field Supervisor
BDI: How did you originally conceive of the idea of ‘Daughters of Dolma: the Spiritual Journey of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Nepal’? Inspiration
Alex: I wanted to re-visit the monasteries and nunneries in Nepal again after my first trip in 2009. My aim was to share with the public an understanding of what it really means for people who take the vows, and to see the beauty and struggles in living the monastic life in today’s era; also to remind others of our innate spirituality within. The idea of a documentary film came about when I realized that a film has the possibility to reach a much wider audience than the collection of essays that I had published in book form about monks from the earlier trip and sold mostly to family and friends.
The initial idea I had in mind was to simply portray the spiritual aspect of nuns. However, this new idea of showing the nuns as “full human beings” that we have now, was conceived and evolved in our group discussion meetings in order to change the focus beyond the usual stereotypes - to give a more comprehensive life account of the nuns.
BDI: How did you form this team? When conditions are right
Alex: Forming the team can be charged to coincidence. I started the project in April 2010 and my first team crumbled in October 2010 due to unforeseen circumstances. Tenzin and I were left with either forgoing the project or sending an email to all our friends as a last resort. I did not know of any friends who were good at filming. I did not want to sacrifice the project with an impromptu filmmaker-friend. I also did not want to work with experienced filmmakers who I did not know – the one thing I did feel was that a successful project is always a balance of skills and personal understanding between members. We chose to send the proposal to friends. A week later, Adam first showed interest and we met him. He was very excited with the project and brought scripts and illustrations of his past works, thinking that we had a lot of filmmakers to choose from, when in fact he was the only one who responded. After he was in, he introduced Nadia and Stefan to the project and by some coincidence we all stuck to the project until now.
BDI: What challenges did you have to face in the early stages of the documentary? Intent and merit
Stefan: There was the problem of communication in a very different country. It was essential for us to have Tenzin to translate and guide for us. We also had to face the problem that the nuns left the nunnery for a special prayer with their spiritual leader without warning us in advance, meaning we had to change our filming schedule in the course of one night.
Alex: There were challenges all the time! First, it was simply an untested idea, which needed lots of money, demanded several partnerships with funders, supervisors and the nunneries (and having to balance those interests to create mutually beneficial situations). It required re-editing of project ideas, endless paperwork applications to the University Ethics Committee and to possible funders, and having to face rejections from several funders. One memorable instance was the night before our scheduled meeting with Vice Principal and then Proctor Ron Piper. We rehearsed our lines so many times and we cracked our minds for ideas to convince him that the project was of merit.
BDI: What do you think is special about the nun’s culture? And what impressed you the most about living with them? Community, dedication, and compassion
Nadia: Empathy and compassion are their philosophy and way of life. For me, it was overwhelming to see how these values served as grounding principles in the Buddhist communities and the nunneries in particular. There is something beyond words when it comes to these women who dedicate themselves to learning, praying, and caring for the well-being of the others. They are revered in their religious communities and yet again, they remain open, friendly, and approachable in their interaction with each other and other people. In spite of having rigid daily demands of spiritual practices and serious studies, the nuns remain particularly cheerful and even perky.
Alex: The nunnery reminded me of the importance of a community to serve as a support for one to reach one’s goals. Living with a spiritual community creates the atmosphere that what you are doing is meaningful and important, which then strengthens one’s motivation to pursue what one has chosen to dedicate one’s life to.
Adam: The happiness and openness they showed towards us. I will never forget their smiles.
Stefan: I was impressed with the kindness and hospitality we encountered. Some of the nuns invited us to meet their family, stay in their homes, and one of the nuns let us stay in a hotel owned by her family for a night. They were very friendly and open to us, at all times.
Tenzin: The thing that impressed me the most was the fact that the nuns are so modern and into so many things like us. For example, they are very fond of English, Bollywood and Korean films but again they are so focused in their Buddhist text studies and are not sidetracked by these other things like the technologies and movies. They are very good in their spiritual fields.
BDI: You emphasize in your film trailer that the Buddhist nuns were not only nuns, but also modern women, who do not necessarily cut themselves off from the rest of the world. Why is this message important to portray and what perceptions do you hope to challenge with your film? At times when technologies are ‘taking over’ the world, how do the nuns preserve their spirituality and are they not tempted by lay life? Spirituality and practice in modern times
Nadia: As a woman, it was important for me to present the distinct concept of femininity that we saw. These women dedicate themselves to the well-being of all sentient beings while advancing their spiritual knowledge at the same time. It is something close to combining self-development with care about others. However, they do not live in isolation from the modern way of life of other people in Nepal. By emphasizing this, I think it is easier for a viewer to understand that some young women who take that path can be opinionated, appreciate the lay life that they give up, and gain from becoming nuns. In a more general sense, many lay people perceive monastics as very distant and incomprehensible or even outdated. When they discover that monks and nuns have similar interests and modern habits of using e-mails, Internet and watching modern movies; these stereotypes could give way to a better understanding of spirituality.
Adam: We want to challenge the stereotypes of nuns just focusing on prayers and studies all day who have removed much of the world’s happiness from their lives. To some extent, because of their schedules filled with rituals, ceremonies and classes, yes. But there are also interesting sides to becoming a nun, and this is what the film hopes to bring to the audience.
Stefan: Nuns can be tempted by lay life, and are allowed to quit the monastic life should they wish. The nuns we lived with were using technology like mobile phones and Facebook as well as DVD players, thus did not have to make the choice between one life or the other. The life of some Buddhist nuns is evolving with time. One Rinpoche (spiritual leader) that we interviewed suggested that as long as technology does not distract the nuns from their practice, it is fine.
Tenzin: Well, with technologies taking over, it is not likely for the nuns to stay completely cut off from the modern developments, as they are modern nuns who choose to keep track of what is happening in the world. These technologies did not sidetrack them because they already have the Buddhist teachings within them and the spiritual perception helps them focus on their religiosity. The nuns have a kind of fixed lifestyle discipline all around year. They woke up really early like 3 or 4 in the morning and then began their morning prayers, which were followed by the day classes and then evening prayers. Their ability to dedicate their lives, in praying for others wellbeing and in preserving the teachings of dharma was amazing. The nuns are very happy for what they are doing.
BDI: Would you say that this rhythm of the nun’s life (very different from a common lifestyle) is closer to the true human nature or just the opposite? Human nature
Stefan: I think that the nuns' empathy and kindness is indeed a part of human nature, and their lifestyle seems much more simple and straightforward. However, I do not believe it is in the human nature to spend much of the day praying and studying, as the nuns do. Nuns do not practice agriculture or produce goods and are being supported by lay-people for the good they do. Similarly, people in the western world trade their work for food and other needs.
Alex: This idea of human nature is a misunderstanding. There is no one human nature, I guess. I think to be close to human nature is for each person listening sincerely to his or her own “calling”. If we think of human nature as going back to basics, it may not apply to the nuns as they have for instance, the 9-year Buddhist Philosophy degree, which is already a modern and standardized curriculum. This makes them stressed especially during exam preparations. It may not be essential, but this is a part of their vocation as nuns. I would say it is just as sophisticated as other forms of occupations, and not any closer to human nature.
Adam: For me, it is closer to true human nature. In the West we adopted a money-centered life in which possessions play a key role. But once you come to realize that you cannot possess anything your view on life drastically changes.
BDI: What did each of you learn from this spiritual journey? Did it change you? And were there any significant moments that you would like to share? Transformation, equality, and depth
Alex: What I learned is that even if I am the leader/chief visionary of the project, we are all equal in the sense that everybody’s contributions are crucial to the success of the film. That has been such a humbling experience for me. Also, it was n once-in-a-lifetime experience to be able to set out as a group of students to reside for a month with Tibetan Buddhist nuns in a foreign country, with the aim of making a professional documentary film out of the trip! I cannot stress how special this set of circumstances is and I have never thought of doing such a risky project just even 2 years before. It has changed me significantly.
Adam: It was an emotional roller-coaster. The journey that led us to Nepal was much longer that we had previously expected. However, going through hardship was important and beneficial. We had our journey travelling to Nepal, and the nuns told their journeys in interviews.
Nadia: My interaction with the youngest nuns in a small nunnery in Pharping was the most significant part of the film production for me. They wash their clothes, clean the nunnery, help in the kitchen and pursue spiritual practices diligently. At the same time, they draw pretty girls, animals and their families and watch cartoons like other girls at their age. They could take care of themselves and do something as responsible as being nuns while having similar experiences as other children. In reflection, it will take me a lot of time to disentangle what I learned from what I felt, especially since I could not truly understand some of it back then. However, this spiritual journey made me embrace the present moment more than ever before and control my inclination to follow my impulse.
Stefan: I got to know a very different and inspiring group of people, who live a life very different to us but at the same time are very similar in some thoughts and ideas. I was also really impressed with some of the interviews we led, some of which were on a personal basis. We got a lot deeper than I expected, and am grateful for that.
Tenzin: For me, interviewing the highest Rinpoche (spiritual leader) of the nunnery was one of the most significant moments because he is such a prominent religious figure and we got a chance to actually go to his room and interview him personally. I made some mistakes while translating the questions to him but that didn’t matter, as he was so welcoming and humble. It went really well. I felt blessed. Also, by not having nuns and monks in my family, I never had a chance to live in a monastery or nunnery and to actually experience their daily lives. So the fact that we all lived with the nuns in their nunnery for a month and to actually see how they live is most significant for me. If not internally, we actually lived their lives at least, physically by waking up as early as they do and sit for prayers with them for hours and hours and do the necessary prostrations, etc. These moments are of such great experience and very significant as well.