VISION….. AND THE LITERAL LACK OF IT. Two films from Balinale

The Balinale International Film Fetsival is well and truly over, showing some great films and some less so, and despite a couple of little tech hiccups at showings (in Ubud in particular, “someone get the circuit breakers…”) seems to have gone off well. Congrats to the organizers for helping to enrich Bali’s cultural pool. I have been meaning to post some comments about two films I saw, which deal with vision – and the literal lack of it. Why they intrigued me is of course very subjective on the one hand – Michael Wiese, who made “Sacred Sites of The Dalai Lamas: A Pilgrimage to the Oracle Lake”, is a friend and the subject matter is of course close to my heart; John Fawcett, who was the subject of God Made Them Blind, is also an old friend. On the other not-so-subjective hand, I am so glad to see more content-over-form film, where the film makers have simply focused on being dictated by the subject instead of spending time and money on fancy footwork. Granted there is a slightly amateurish tinge in both, but the awkwardness is overcome by the subject matter, and if anything makes it more real. I was glad not to have lots of clever visuals or mtv sensationalism interfere in either of these films. For a Tibetan Buddhist, watching Sacred Sites, a vaguely cinema verité take on a modern day Buddhist pilgrimage, really gives one the feel of being there. Though pilgrimages may sound like something exalted, there are also always the nitty gritty bits of travel which enforce reality checks – logistical obstacles, sickness, fatigue, and so on. If anything pilgrimages are really about what happens inside us as we confront all of this, as well as how we absorb the extraordinarily sacred places we visit. The places we see and experience in this film are remote not only in space but in time as well. It feels like being a 21st time traveller in 16th century Tibet, and for a Tibetan Buddhist, it is like treading on hallowed ground – caves of great masters like Guru Rinpoche, Atisha, Milarepa and other famed hermits attained enlightenment, valleys where spiritual communities of the highest order lived and flourished, and finally the oracle lake where the history-determining visions are sought. We travel in the company of Glen Mullin, a living legend for Tibetan Buddhists, and the irrepresible Bhutanese teacher, venerable Khenpo Tashi. The simple, hand held camera work, the candidness of musician Steve Dancz’s narration make it an intimate encounter. When you watch these scenes you know that these are not ordinary places. The “vibe” comes through. It is a kind of vindication for Michael, who, strapped with the technological reality of recording this journey, obviously had to sacrifice some sense of the sanctity of the pilgrimage – if nothing else working when others were meditating!

In “God Made Them Blind”, film maker (what else do you call someone who like Michael also wrote, directed and produced their film?) Richard Todd spent more than four years documenting the extraordinary community work of John Fawcett in Bali. John Fawcett, who is an earthy western Australian ceramicist, has devoted the last decade or two to providing free eye operations for literally tens of thousands of poor Balinese. After a traumatic nearly crippling accident, the pain from which left him in a state of deep depression, John somehow found his way to Bali. Here he found inspiration to move forward again, and one day he came upon the idea to set up a mobile clinic. That is the short version. The story itself is told with refreshing, humble candor, and we follow John in his encounters with poor Balinese farmers and fishing folk, slowly overcoming their superstitions: “God made them blind” said one farmer about 8 of 12 his children who were genetically blinded by an operable condition, for 12 years refusing to let John have them operated on; the moment he finally relents is caught on camera in an almost anitclimactic yet touching way – which is how most of these moments actually do happen. There are several stories intertwined, and different reactions: moments of quiet joy and wonder when vision is restored to the one of the girls referred to in the title, the bewilderment and wonder of a two year old who had never seen anything before in her life, the quiet, resigned disappointment of a older peasant woman who, after finally being convinced to see the doctor, found she had left it too long and could not be helped. Through it all is John’s life story, his pain, and his dedication to this extraordinary service: by most counts the program has successfully given sight back to twenty five thousand Balinese. And Richard, bless him, helps us see this. My hat is off to both these film makers, who have documented inspiration with the minimum of fuss.

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