Here is what would appear to be a very interesting new documentary film in the making. Directed by Dafna Yachin, Digital Dharma focuses on the life and work of E. Gene Smith, an American anthropology graduate and pacificist, to preserve and archive swathes of Tibetan Buddhist texts through digitalization.
According to the film’s own website:
Digital Dharma is the chronicle of a cultural rescue. This feature-length HD documentary brings to light the magnitude of one man’s inspirational 50-year quest to save the literary history of a disappearing culture and to preserve early lessons of mankind’s consciousness.
The life of E. Gene Smith is an epic story of destiny and compassion that leads a pacifist on a mission of survival. In an era of espionage and mistrust, Gene’s mission becomes the catalyst for an international movement to save ancient writing and art from crumbling, literally, to dust… and then deliver them to the entire world.
Judging by the descriptions on the website, Smith’s story would seem to cast light on the confluence of Cold War politics, US development policies and the struggles of the Tibetan diaspora to preserve its cultural heritage and overcome the hardships of life in exile. In a fascinating detail, the description of Smith’s life details how, while he was working for the US Library of Congress in Dehli, he was able to leverage a US program (PL 480) to sell excess agricultural products to developing countries to pay exiled Tibetans to reproduce ancient texts. This plan depended on two quirks of the policy. First, it was not possible to pay for agricultural products directly because the Indian rupee was blocked at that time, leading to the need to spend the money within India. Second, PL 480 was amended to allow books to be purchased for the US, but only if they were less than two years old. Smith was apparently able to manipulate these requirements by encouraging Tibetans to produce new texts based on various old and crumbling manuscripts and then buying the new versions from them. This would appear to have formed the basis for future preservation programs that eventually led to the digitalization of thousands of Tibetan Buddhist texts. If I’ve understood these details correctly, the film should reveal something about the very specific way Tibetan Buddhism has globalized and gained a foothold in the US academy. It would show how, far from being automatic, abstract processes, the formation of these cultural connections have depended on very specific factors — not the least the commitment and skillful actions of particular well-placed individuals.
The filmmaker appears to have collected a lot of HD video of Smith and various people connected to him and his projects in India, Nepal and the US. She is now seeking donations in order to crowdsource funds to complete the project. Judging by what I’ve seen, it would seem like a very worthwhile project to support.