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What is Buddhist in a Buddhist Film Festival?

PuayKimteo

By Kalinga Seneviratne

This article is the 25th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

SINGAPORE  – The just concluded 5th edition of 'Thus I Have Seen Buddhist Film Festival (THISBFF)' in Singapore attracted a large non-Buddhist audience according to its organisers, but still it grappled with the question of what constitutes "Buddhist" in a film festival.

Festival director Puay Kim Teo of ‘Dhamma in Action’, reminiscing at its origins 10 years ago, recalls “we were looking for an outreach platform to share Buddhist teachings and Buddhist culture with the wider community in Singapore, beyond the normal temple grounds and society premises”.

He says they have been very successful in that regard. “Every edition we have sold over 5,000 tickets and we get tremendous support from the arts and Buddhist community. In the last two editions we have been able to get the Buddhist community to appreciate art films.”

But, this fact by itself may be the reason why the festival tends to focus more on films done by western directors. The year’s festival included films from Bhutan, Cambodia, Thailand, India, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, USA and Denmark.  Out of the 17 films screened during the week-long festival from September 22 to 29, 7 were from directors based in the USA.

“The Idea of a Buddhist film is very difficult,” argues Teo. “We try to involve known Buddhist cultures like Cambodia and Thailand and Himalayas and Sri Lanka. We want to make sure that there are Buddhist elements like the sangha (monks) and Buddha represented. Our parameters are never permanent but we have one important criteria that all films must represent Buddhism in good light.”

The last point came to the limelight about a month before the week-long film festival began, when the Singapore Buddhist Federation (SBF) expressed public concern about a Japanese film titled ‘Suffering of Ninko’ for its graphic nudity and sexual scenes. The film depicts a young monk called Ninko struggling to stay virtuous despite young men and women being attracted to him. Finally he succumbs to the hyper-sexualized world.

SBF’s president, Venerable Seck Kwang Phing told the Straits Times that the film does not "ring true to Buddhist practices" and it is inappropriate for screening under the name of Buddhism as it does not introduce Buddhist practices.

The organisers, ‘Dhamma In Action” refused to withdraw the film and it attracted a sell-out crowd at the festival on September 27. The screening was followed by an animated Q and A session with the Japanese director Norihiro Niwatsukino, who claimed to be a Buddhist. He said he always wanted to lure his audiences into an unknown world by presenting to them something they have never seen. Judging by the audience reaction he has achieved that.

Talking through an interpreter, Norihiro acknowledged that many in the audience may have been confused with what he tries to present, and the film may not be what one may call Buddhist.

“The message I wanted to convey through the movie was that there are people who are known to be vicious, but were not born that way, but end up becoming bad people,” he said. “Everyone of us thinks that we are on the right path like Ninko, who thinks he is doing the right thing, but faced all those failures and ended what he was.”

Explaining the decision not to withdraw the film, Teo told Lotus News Features that they didn't bring this film to offend anyone, but to contemplate on how suppression and indulgence which “everyone of us faces” is handled (or mishandled in this case).

He added that the organisers saw it as an educational film to help to understand the cause and effects of Buddhism, find out what causes them and how we can help them. “In this movie the monk is a very diligent and hardworking monk. Because he did not have the wisdom and proper guidance he ended up failing. It applies to all of us about suppression and indulgence,” he argues.

The festival’s aim is to relate or connect Buddhist teachings especially to social issues in contemporary society. ‘Honey Giver Among The Dogs’ a debut feature film by Bhutanese director Dechen Roder was an interesting choice in this regard.

It is about a Bhutanese police detective who goes undercover to investigate the disappearance of a Buddhist nun, and gets into a risky alliance with his only suspect, a mysterious and alluring young woman. It brings into the limelight corruption within Bhutanese society, as well as the traditional beliefs on ‘dakinis’ (tantric priestess).

In a post-screening discussion, Dechen said that she wanted to take the dakinis out of temple paintings into the realm of modern society. She lamented that the Bhutanese film industry that produces about 30 films a year is too influenced by the glitz and music of Bollywood from India and it is not easy to get financial support for art films like this. However, she has got a small grant for this film from Bhutanese anti-corruption authorities, though she did not go out to make a film on corruption.

'One Mind' made by American director Edward Burger has no problem fitting into the definition of a Buddhist film festival. It portrays life inside one of China's most austere and revered Chan Buddhist communities – the monks of Zhenru Chan Monastery established over 1400 years ago.

Pei Si Wong, a young Buddhist who has just graduated with a communication degree majoring in animation was a volunteer at the festival. She admits that the films shown here may not be typical Buddhist films. “But the films help to reflect on Buddhist practices,” she argues. Pointing to ‘One Mind’ she told Lotus News that life within the monastery as shown in the film “made me feel what it is in a monastery – very peaceful and contemplative”.

“What people are looking for from Buddhism is some form of guidance in their lives – how to overcome difficulties in their lives,” says Wong. “So, if I’m to do a film, I would do something on someone facing difficulties in life. This type of Buddhism is universal and applies to everybody.” She added that she’s got some ideas in doing animations with Buddhist themes from watching some of the films shown at the festival.

‘A Cambodian Spring’ by American filmmaker Chris Kelly raised an interesting issue about monks getting involved in political campaigns, and the conservative nature of the Buddhist establishment.

A young monk becomes a social media activist to support villagers opposing land grabbing involving crony companies of Cambodian leader Hun Sen. While he helps the villagers to take their case to international forums, the hierarchy of the Cambodian sangha (backed by the government) demands that he disrobes. It is a gripping two-hour film, which was given Singapore Censor Board approval at the last minute.

"The Cambodia film is very important, we wanted to bring up the difficulties of the sangha operating in today’s society,” says Teo. “There are many demands on sagha to be involved in social issues. I believe lay community has to exercise caution in allowing sangha into these issues…. In Cambodia film, the monk was caught on both sides and there was no resolution.”

Through the festival, Teo argues that they are trying to make the Singapore Buddhists more aware of social issues facing communities across Asia. “Buddhist community cannot be removed from the wider social issues,“ he adds. “There is dhamma in everything ... Buddhist community has to be involved in human society.”

Photo: Puay Kim Teo speaking at the 1st Asian Buddhist Media Conclave in Delhi in August about the festival.

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