Finding meaning at the Int'l Buddhist Film Festival

By Hana Baba,, December 7, 2010

Berkeley, CA (USA) -- The path to enlightenment is a central ideal in the Buddhist tradition. The world has over a billion Buddhists, and the Bay Area is a prominent bastion of Buddhist practice here in the U.S. Visual artists are recognizing that faith right now through the Buddhist Film Festival, taking place in San Rafael and San Francisco. To learn more about it, KALW’s Hana Baba sat down with the executive director of the festival, Gaetano Maida, at his Berkeley office.

GAETANO MAIDA: The Buddhism festival is an old idea, something that many of us who have studied Buddhism and have been involved with film thought was a great idea way back in the '80s. There weren't enough films. And we waited very patiently, and when “Kundun” came out – that's 1998 or 1997 – and there was another film called "Seven Years in Tibet," and "Little Buddha," it signaled that major filmmakers like Bertolucci and Martin Scorsese were willing to take up the subject of Buddhism. And we felt then was a good time to organize a Buddhist film festival.

So in 2000, a group of us, including educators and filmmakers here in the Bay Area, organized the Buddhist Film Foundation and took it on. We are looking for films that are about compassion, about impermenance, about the sense of interconnectivity among all things and people. We quote the Dalai Lama who has been asked about his work, and he says, "You know, I'm not interested in making more Buddhists. I'm interested in making more compassion." And so we've had films that are not likely to be thought of as Buddhist at first, but because we present them, they may have in fact a different resonance with audiences.

HANA BABA: What films are these? Are they films made by Buddhists? Are they films about Buddhism and about Buddhists? All of the above?

MAIDA: We look for either a Buddhist subject, a Buddhist setting, a Buddhist creative – meaning director or screenwriter, or as we winkingly say, a Buddhist implication. We've shown Jim Jarmusch’s "Ghost Dog." We've shown "Rivers and Tides" about the artist Andy Goldsworthy. There're a lot of works that don't necessarily reference Buddhism specifically and yet reach the same conclusions or offer the same perspectives.

We're not affiliated with anybody, we're totally independent, we have people from all over the world working with us on programming. And the idea is to shed some light and not be dogmatic in any way.

BABA: So, if we talk about some of the films featured this year, it seems that a lot of these films have very ... they're telling a story about somebody. And it goes deep into their lives, and it just pulls you in so deep and makes you reflect as a human being on, "Who am I? And what am I doing?" How much of this film festival for you is not just somebody watching a film, but reflecting themselves, on themselves and on their own world?

MAIDA: I don't think it's an accident that the films that we choose tend to draw the attention of our audiences to, we'll say, what's real. And that is in fact the intention of a Buddhist practice. The Buddha didn't suggest that you believe him because he said something. He suggested in fact the opposite, that you take what he's offered, a few practices, a few insights, and you try them out, make sure they work. If they work, you should use them. If they don't work, you should not use them. Don't be afraid, don't be tied down. And because of the wide range of films that we offer, we see different approaches to this exact issue: how to be real, how to be awake, how to pay attention in a very confusing world. And to be still loyal or comfortable with the world in which you in fact find yourself.

BABA: Do you feel there are misconceptions or stereotypes related to Buddhists and Buddhism that are corrected or can be addressed through film? I'm thinking of stereotypes because many people when they think of Buddhism, it's immediately Tibet and the monks and zen, and all these are elements within the Buddhist tradition. But it's not only that – it's much more, as you mentioned. So what role do you think film can play in either correcting a misconception or helping out people with understanding more about Buddhism through film.

MAIDA: The fact is there are many, many, many Buddhisms. There are Buddhists and there are Buddhisms. And what the west, unfamiliar up until recently with Buddhisms, has seen to date is famous Buddhists, the ones who wear the robes; his Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh from Vietnam. They’re both monastics, they’re both monks. And the Buddhist arena is not only about monks and nuns. And so our opportunity with the festival is to have films that demonstrate the extraordinary, I mean truly extraordinary diversity of Buddhist experience and expression around the world.

BABA: Seeing clips from a number of the films this year, it looks like many take the documentary format.

MAIDA: On Wednesday we have “The Buddha,” David Grubin, famous filmmaker from New York. It is a documentary, he’s best known for his biographies of JFK and RFK and Napoleon. But this is a documentary about the historic Buddha. And he uses, very ingeniously, poets to help tell his story. Twenty-five minutes of the film is animation to tell the story. It’s very ingenious approach to telling the story of the historic Buddha.

BABA: So speaking of shattering stereotypes and branching out from what many perceive as the traditional Buddhist look or way, you have Wavy Gravy. So who’s Wavy Gravy and how did you pick this film to be in the festival?

MAIDA: Wavy Gravy is one of our treasures of the Bay Area. He’s most famous for being at the Woodstock Festival back in 1969 and he was in those days a member of a group called the Hog Farm. And the Hog Farm were in many ways a self appointed collective, a community, and not particularly organized. But these were people who felt that they should do what needed to be done. And they did things like soup kitchens in the Golden Gate Park. And they would travel to festivals like Woodstock and make sure that things were run well, that there were health services, that lost children were found, that people were fed when they couldn’t leave the festival area. They were an important component of what many think of as the ‘60s.

It’s an extraordinary story of what the Buddhists would call a Bodhisattva: a someone who has essentially vowed to save all sentient beings, to forestall his own freedom until everyone that he sees is also freed of suffering. And that is what Wavy Gravy’s doing. And really, he wouldn’t use the term, but many many who observe him and who love him will say, “That is a Bodhisattva.” That is a person dedicating his life to taking care of others even without direct benefit to himself. An extraordinary story, very well told, and the film is still playing around the Bay Area, the Shattuck Theater in Berkeley and the Red Vic in San Francisco, at least through the end of the week.

Any of these films is a little window into a world of ideas and inspiration and hope. And our hope is- equally part of the film world can be a source of light and not necessarily only limited to a source of violence or, we’ll say-conflict, darkness. We enjoy entertainment like anyone else but there needs to be an opportunity for folks to appreciate film as a source of light and we choose films that we hope will offer that to our audiences.

The 8th Annual International Buddhist Film Festival is running through December 19 in San Rafael and San Francisco.

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