Refuge. Wheel of Time. Angry Monk. Life of Buddha. These are just a few of the many recent docs that focus on Buddhism in general and Tibetan Buddhism in particular. It’s quite an output, considering fewer than 500 million people globally (mostly in Asia) ascribe to Buddhism, and that Tibet is a remote corner of central Asia. But Buddhism hooks audiences.
As Alberta Nokes, director of independent productions at Toronto-based Vision TV explains, broadcasters like Buddhist-themed stories because they overlap non-fiction genres and so appeal to wide audiences. ‘They are incredible stories of discovery…of adventure, traveling around the world, of mystery, and social-political issues,’ she says, referring to docs that touch on China’s occupation of Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s exile.
Doc-makers in turn are capitalizing on that popularity, and tapping into a network of broadcasters and special-interest organizations that offer financing or in-kind assistance to help these docs get made.
The Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation, in Hilversum, the Netherlands was established in 2000 and is a uniquely Dutch initiative. Under Dutch law, adherents to any religion have a right to media access, explains Babeth Van Loo, the BBF’s programming director. To fill a sked that amounts to 30 hours a year, carried in weekly 30- or 60-minute slots on pub channel Netherlands 1, Van Loo relies heavily on doc commissions and copros. ‘Our main focus is the application of Buddhism in [western] society,’ she says. For instance, two programs she backed focus on the influence of Buddhist thought on mental therapy and hospice care as practiced in Europe.
Although her own budget is tiny, Van Loo is able to offer meaningful financing by accessing state funds earmarked for minority-issue docs and international copros. In 2005, the BBF’s license will be renewed and Van Loo expects her airtime – and need for docs – to increase. For Life of Buddha, a †500,000 (us$590,000) feature-length travel/discovery copro directed by Paris-based Martin Meissonier and co-financed by France’s arte and Australia’s SBS Television, the bbf provided a healthy †60,000 ($71,000).
In part due to a spring visit of the Dalai Lama to Canada, Vision TV recently backed four Canadian docs on the topic: Ziji Film and TV Productions’ Words of My Perfect Teacher, about a filmmakers’ journey of enlightenment; Producers on Davie’s Lost Secrets of Ancient Medicine, an exploration of Tibetan folk remedies; Jean-Pierre Paiement’s Dalai Lama: Behind the Smile, which examines the future of the Tibetan cause in light of the Dalai Lama’s age (68); and Geoff Browne and Shan Tam’s Call It Karma, one monk’s journey from Tibet to Canada. Nokes says, ‘These take an attitude to living that is very much of interest to people right now.’
It was by catering to interest in the political situation in Tibet that Tom Peosay, head of Santa Barbara-based Zambuling Pictures, was able to raise about $150,000 toward the $650,000 budget of Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion, a feature-doc that looks at the conflict between Tibet and China. He partnered with a u.s. non-profit, New York-based Colonnades Theater Lab, and solicited audiences of a rough cut and other individuals for donations, which were tax deductible due to the theatre company’s 501c charity status. ‘We approached everyone we thought might be interested in the cause of Tibet,’ he says. The film had a theatrical release in the US and is rolling out in Canada this spring. By late April it had grossed around $550,000 and Peosay was in negotiations for several TV deals.
For Refuge, a one-hour doc wrapped in 2004, New York-based director John Halpern called upon Tibet or Buddhist-oriented groups to help with the $350,000 doc. The Tibetan Center, a New York-based charity, and the Dalai Lama’s Tibet Office, the hq of his government in exile, arranged interviews (with reclusive monks, celebs and the Dalai) for no fee and helped Halpern, who was once a bodyguard for the Dalai Lama, find private investors. In April, the doc had a limited release in Toronto. As of press time, Refuge was seeking a distributor.