Vajra Sky Over Tibet
2006, NR, 89 min. Directed by John Bush. Narrated by John Bush, Tenzin L. Choegyal, Dadon.
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Dec. 22, 2006
High in the mountains of Tibet, a great religious tradition stretching back thousands of years is slowly dying on the vine. The Buddhism practiced there, with its ornate rituals, eerie throat singing, and pantheon of reincarnated lamas, has been on a respirator ever since the communist Chinese government seized control of the country back in 1949 and the Dalai Lama was forced into exile 10 years later. Since then, Buddhism in Tibet has been a movement without a leader, and that, along with the destruction of innumerable temples and texts and the systematic oppression of the faithful, has left the religion in a sad state in a country where it once thrived. One Western acolyte of these beleaguered traditions is Bush, who has created Vajra Sky Over Tibet (part of his Yatra Trilogy of movies, which explore the many “spiritual wonders” of Southeast Asia) to celebrate the vitality of an ancient religion and bear witness to its gradual destruction. There’s no doubting Bush’s heart is in the right place, and he takes great pains to capture the emotive and aesthetic power of both Tibetan Buddhist traditions and the glorious natural landscape that engendered them. His film takes us high into misty mountains and deep into the monasteries of the capital city of Lhasa, granting us access to rituals and ceremonies rarely seen by Western eyes. As an educational tool, there’s really no faulting it: Anything you ever wanted to know about Tibetan Buddhism but didn’t know to ask is here on display – from prayer wheels to Panchen Lamas, from laughing statues to The Tibetan Book of the Dead – and it’s all appropriately mesmerizing and exotic and curious. The problem, however, is that Bush’s reverence for the religion and his desire to see its significance and precariousness recognized by the outside world far outpace his abilities as a director and storyteller. Vajra Sky Over Tibet is educational without being edifying, distracting without being inspirational, and in the end it feels like a guided tour rather than a movie, like a primer or a catechism or a glorified glossary of terms rather than a work of creativity. In addition, Bush wears his affection for Buddhist philosophy and his dedication to its preservation unashamedly on his sleeve, and as a result his movie nearly drowns in solemnity and noble intentions (not to mention chanting; oh, does Bush never tire of chanting?): Any viewer not as enamored as the director may find him or herself choking on incense long before the film is over. Though Bush’s aims are admirable and his ability to slip into the cracks of an ancient culture impressive, one can’t shake the feeling that the tale of Tibet’s struggles against communist injustice deserves the attentions of a truly great documentarian, not merely a sympathetic one. AFS@Dobie