The Buddhist Film Foundation’s International Buddhist Film Festival (IBFF) this year saw some landmark releases on subjects that see relatively little exposure. Of the five excellent films selected for screenings, two that caught my eye were Kalmyk-born director Ella Manzheeva’s Geshe Wangyal—With Blessings of the Three Jewels and Jin Huaqing’s Dark Red Forest. Dark Red Forest documents the lives of 20,000 nuns living at the remote Yarchen Monastery on a snowy Tibetan plateau, while Manzheeva’s film celebrates the life of Geshe Wangyal’s work as a bridge between Vajrayana and the West, and how he arranged the Dalai Lama’s first visit to the US in 1979.
Other selected screenings include Helen Whitney’s Into the Night—Portraits of Life and Death (Part Two), Ngawang Choephel’s Ganden—A Joyful Land, and Rosemary Rawcliffe’s The Great 14th (a special 88th birthday tribute screening for His Holiness the Dalai Lama).
This year coincidentally features many Tibetan topics. Gaetano Kazuo Maida, executive director of the BFF and coordinator of the IBFF, maintains that in some years, there are simply more works that happen to focus on a particular field. “Our approach has always been to welcome films from everywhere and to select the very best available in any given season. This is not a programming theme that we set, but just a function of the submitted and invited films.” The IBFF has occasionally curated focused programs, such as on comedy, Tibet, the bardo, Myanmar, Nepal, and so on. “But those are special programs, not our festival presentations.”
Maida is often thinking about the reality of constant change and adapting to an ever-shifting market. “The entire film ecosystem has been dramatically affected by the pandemic, though some of the disruptions are trends that already had been set in motion,” he observed. “The main issue has been the advent and dominance of streaming, putting art house cinemas on the back foot as audiences increasingly choose the convenience of home viewing over the theater experience.”
Of course, COVID-19 forced governments to take action in public spaces that could not help but affect cinemagoing habits. “Once the pandemic became the new but temporary reality, all films, including full festival programs, were only available online, which had the effect of accelerating the trend. Many art house theaters suffered, a good number have closed, and it is not clear that audiences will return in sufficient numbers to support these venues in many communities.”
The other key effect, Maida noted, was a contraction of films produced over the past three years due to travel, funding, and production restrictions. “There has been a severe short-term reduction of the number of films that we can choose. To some extent, this shortage has been balanced by the great number of films completed before the pandemic. They were delayed in distribution and are now available, which amounts to something of a glut, certainly in terms of the reduced number of currently available art house cinema screens.”
The Buddhist Film Channel
One of Maida’s major projects is the Buddhist Film Channel (BFC), the world’s first and only streaming platform that exclusively features Buddhist and mindfulness cinema. This exciting new milestone in streaming, which has captured the world by storm (from Netflix to Disney+ to HBO) will soon be ready.
“We are working with our filmmaking community to provide subtitles in the major non-English languages as fast as funding will allow, and will proceed accordingly. But folks can visit the welcome site and sign up for email alerts and special offers right now.”
The BFC represents Buddhism’s first answer to a cinematic and streaming landscape that has shifted right under our feet in several years. It is perhaps Maida’s most robust response to the radically different world the BFF finds itself in. “Our key strength is our twenty years of presenting and distributing this cinema through our International Buddhist Film Festival and Festival Media service,” he said. “We are currently in the testing or beta phase as we upload content daily. Once we are confident that we have identified and corrected any bugs, we will initiate a robust launch promotion campaign—print, online, and social—first in North America, then Europe, and finally Asia.”
The BFC’s first rule is “a good story, well told.” Storytelling is king. Maida said, “We want filmmakers to focus on many different aspects of the Buddhist and mindfulness arena, some on characters and relationships, some on institutions, some on historical events and personalities, some on places and environments, and even a few on ideas.”
The so-called “teaching” videos are not his priority, however. Maida maintains that when it comes to teaching Buddhist doctrine overtly (in a sense, preaching over storytelling), there are many outlets for such a purpose. “The amazing work of Meridian Trust in the UK is one excellent example, but many lineages have online libraries of these for their teachers. In any case these tend not to be aimed towards general audiences, which is our mission.”
Maida confesses that this has led to a bit of a conundrum. Not all grantor organization – the real stakeholders and wielders of power – are interested in creative storytelling, or at least the kind of directorial independence that would give a streaming platform its own identity. “We had seriously considered raising a replenishing development fund to enable us to directly provide either startup or completion funding to promising projects, but there is not actually a sustainable market for this kind of cinema at a level that would attract sufficient contributions to such a fund.”
While every film has its own path, and establishing an institutional vehicle may seem useful, the concern around a major donor or institutional partner persists. It has always been the core worry of every Buddhist-centered project, and without a donor or partner, it is very hard to justify the effort. “Also, many of the films we select are produced in nations that, unlike here, have support mechanisms at the government level available to qualified filmmakers. so, not enough of a market, yet also not enough funded new films to establish such a robust market.”
For now, Maida maintains, “For now, our BFC can be considered a sustainable archive, a tertiary marketplace for films to be available to audiences and generate revenues after they have completed whatever other opportunities they may have had, from film festivals to theatrical screenings or broadcasts.”
This certainly might put the BFC at a lesser position compared to mega-profitable streaming platforms that have their own in-house teams and churn out productions daily, regardless of quality. However, even starting this vision is already a milestone. Something needs to exist to be able to be built on. Now that a Buddhist streaming platform is no longer a theoretical idea or a wistful fantasy, it is perhaps only a matter of time before a sustainable model arises that can satisfy hunger for “storytelling first,” while also being relatively cutting-edge and fresh.
Ganden trailer: https://vimeo.com/517741568
Geshe Wangyal trailer: https://youtu.be/Xg9MY07Oxuk
Into the Night Part Two trailer: https://vimeo.com/642775335
The Great 14th trailer: https://vimeo.com/358189409
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