Despite not having as much spiritual weight as I would have liked, I ended up greatly informed of Buddhist issues and sub-schools.
Hannah Nydahl may not be known to many, but as this documentary reveals, she was one of the most active and influential voices in the development of western Buddhist practice. Born in Denmark, she became immersed in Buddha’s teachings after her and her soon-to-be husband, Ole, traveled to Nepal and met the Bhutanese lama Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche, who would remain with them until his death. The couple would go on to be constantly surrounded by many prominent Buddhist figures, mainly from Tibetan sects. Spanning several years, the film mostly explores Hannah’s progress in exposing the world to Buddhist teachings, the political strife felt by Tibetan Buddhists, and the controversy surrounding the search and appointment of the 17th Karmapa, who leads the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism where Hannah and Ole first practiced. While all of these issues are engaging and presented well, I was disappointed by what seemed like a shortage of in-depth Buddhist philosophy. However, several of Hannah’s talks are included as extras on the DVD.
The film is primarily composed of archival footage, with talking heads in between. The sheer amount of surviving film of this Buddhist sect and community is impressive and very helpful in painting a picture of Hannah’s life. The home-video effect strengthens the path to enlightenment narrative that the film constructs around her. Likewise, they have footage from many incidents involving Tibetan Buddhist persecution, as well civil unrest in response to the picking of two Karmapas, leaving the true identity of the reincarnated Lama in dispute to this day. Despite not having as much spiritual weight as I would have liked (perhaps it should be viewed alongside Samsara), I ended up greatly informed of Buddhist issues and sub-schools which, as a dabbler of Buddhism myself, helped paint a more human and dynamic picture of the Dharma’s followers. It departs from the traditional, docile portrayal of Buddhists and reveals their way of defense and preservation in a hostile world.
That said, there were a few strange things in terms of aesthetic choices that I don’t quite know how to feel about. Most glaring is the score. While not badly composed, it almost never feels appropriate. It’s an ambient, tense score, like something you’d see in a documentary about Jim Jones and not a Buddhist scholar. Of course, the political events and civil unrest definitely call for grave music or graphics to supplement the tone, but they never make a distinction between those segments and the optimistic segments when scoring. Luckily, a strange choice of music doesn’t take much away from the story. The other beef I had was that there seemed to be no subtitles included with the DVD. Since Hannah, Ole, and many of their friends who speak in the film are Danish, their accents can be difficult to understand. And I’m aware that this sounds like an old-man argument, but I really would have liked to have that option so I could be sure to absorb the power of Hannah’s words, as she truly had incredible presence and eloquence.
For any Buddhists, but especially beginners or those simply interested in learning more, this documentary is a little eye-opening, not in terms of its insights into the Dharma or Buddha’s teachings, but in terms of the current struggles and endeavors of Buddhists today. | Nic Champion