Not so long ago the JGB was contacted by the people behind a new film called “Daughters of Dolma”, a documentary about Tibetan Buddhist nuns in Nepal and their engagement with modernity. The email includes a link to the film’s trailer, which was very high quality and professional. It also looked fascinating.
I was therefore gobsmacked to learn that the people behind the film were not professional filmmakers but a group of undergraduate students from St. Andrews University working with what was no doubt a very limited budget supplied by the university itself. What’s more, they are an international team, hailing from the Philippines, Bulgaria, Poland, Germany, Hungary and Tibet. It seems then that through a combination of entrepreneurial spirit, energy, technological savvy, and probably more than a little chutzpah, this group of students have managed to produce something truly extraordinary. Based on what I’ve seen so far I’m very much looking forward to seeing the finished version of Daughters of Dolma and I wish the filmmakers all the best for this fantastic enterprise.
More information is available on their Facebook page.
The filmmakers were also kind enough to supply a Q&A document about their project. You can read this after the jump.
Q&A with Daughters of Dolma Team
We are a group of students from the University of St Andrews, UK, who came together to produce a feature-length documentary entitled “Daughters of Dolma” about Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Nepal. We have formed a special team of differing skills and interests to shoot this documentary.
The documentary provides an in-depth depiction of Tibetan Buddhist nuns in Nepal, highlighting their spiritual vocation alongside their gender, their different upbringings and personalities, and living in a modernising country such as Nepal. It aims to portray the nuns beyond the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, to include their interactions with modernity, technology and inter-generational differences.
1. How did you conceive the idea of ‘Daughters of Dolma: the Spiritual Journey of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Nepal’? How was the idea of the movie made up?
Alex: I wanted to visit Nepal’s monasteries and nunneries once again after being there for the first time in 2009. My aims are for the public to understand what it really means for the people who took the vows, and so see the beauty and struggles in living the monastic life in today’s era, and also to remind others of our innate spirituality within. From my trip in 2009, I have produced a book entitled “Essays by the Candlelight” which covered the life stories of monks whom I stayed with. I sold 250 copies to families and friends. The idea of a documentary film came about as I realised that a film has the possibility to reach a much wider audience. The initial idea I had in mind was to simply portray the spiritual aspect of nuns. However, this new idea of showing the nuns as “full human beings” we have now was conceived in our group meetings when the group thought that we will focus beyond the usual “stereotypes” to give a more comprehensive account of the nuns.
2. How did you form this team?
Alex: Forming the team can be charged to coincidence. I started the project in April 2010. When my first team crumbled in October 2010 due to unforeseen circumstances, I and Tenzin were left with either forgoing the project or sending an email to all our friends about the project as a last resort. I did not know of any friends who are good at filming, I do not want to sacrifice the project with an impromptu filmmaker-friend, and I also do not want to work with experienced filmmakers who I do not know, because I know a successful project is always a balance of skills and personal understanding between members. We chose to send the proposal to friends. A week later, Adam first showed interest and we met up. He was very excited with the project that he brought scripts and illustrations of his past works, thinking that we had a lot of filmmakers to choose from, when in fact he was the only one who responded. After he was in, he introduced Nadia and Stefan to the project and by some coincidence we all stuck to the project until now.
3. What challenges did you have to face during the production of the documentary?
Stefan: There was the problem of communication in a very different country. It was essential for us to have Tenzin, having grown up in India, to translate for us and guide us. We also had to face the problem that the nuns left the nunnery for a special prayer with their spiritual leader without warning us in advance, meaning we had to change our filming schedule in the course of one night.
Alex: There were challenges all the time! First, it was simply an untested idea, which needed lots of money, demanded several partnerships with funders, supervisors and the nunneries (and having to balance those interests to create mutually beneficial situations), required re-editing of project idea, endless paperwork applications to the University Ethics Committee and to possible funders, and having to face rejections from several funders. One memorable instance is the night before our scheduled meeting with Vice Principal and then Proctor Ron Piper. We rehearsed our lines so many times and we cracked our minds for ideas to convince him that the project is of merit.
4. What did you learn from this spiritual journey? How did it change you?
Alex: What I learned is that even if I am the leader/chief visionary of the project, we are all equal in the sense that everybody’s contributions are crucial to the success of the film. Such a humbling experience for me. Also, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be able to set out as a group of students to reside for a month with Tibetan Buddhist nuns in a foreign country, with the aim of making a professional documentary film out of the trip! I cannot stress how special this set of circumstances is and I have never thought of doing such a risky project just even 2 years before. It has changed me significantly.
Adam: It was an emotional rollercoaster. The journey that led us to Nepal was much longer that we had previously expected. However, going through hardship was important and beneficial. We had our journey to Nepal and the nuns told their journeys in interviews.
Nadia: It will take me a lot of time to disentangle what I learnt from what I felt, especially since I could not truly understand some of it back then. However, this spiritual journey made me embrace the present moment more than before and control my inclination to follow my impulse.
Stefan: I got to know a very different and inspiring group of people, who live a life very different to us but at the same time are very similar in some thoughts and ideas.
5. What do you think is special about their culture?
Nadia: Empathy and compassion are their philosophy and way of life. For me, it was overwhelming to see how these values served as grounding principles in the Buddhist communities and the nunneries in particular. Furthermore, not everyone could be a nun because it is an individual vocation. There is something beyond words when it comes to these women dedicating themselves to learning, praying, and caring for the well-being of the others. They are revered in their religious communities and yet again, they remain open, friendly, and approachable.
Alex: The nunnery reminded me of the importance of a community to serve as a support for one to reach one’s goals. Living with a spiritual community creates the atmosphere that what you are doing is meaningful and important, which then strengthens one’s motivation to pursue what one has chosen to dedicate one’s life to.
6. What impressed you the most from your time living with the nuns?
Adam: The happiness and openness they showed towards us. I will never forget their smiles.
Stefan: I was impressed with the kindness and hospitality we encountered. Some of the nuns invited us to meet their family, stay in their homes, one of the nuns let us stay in a hotel owned by her family for a night. They were very friendly and open to us, at all times.
Tenzin: The things that impressed me the most is the fact that the nuns are so modern and into so many things like us. For example, they are very fond of English, Bollywood and Korean films but again they are so focussed in their Buddhist text studies and are not sidetracked by these other things like the technologies and movies. They are very good in their spiritual fields.
Nadia: Taking into account their rigid daily round, what impressed me the most was the nuns’ friendly and open interaction with each other and other people in the nunnery. They have a strict schedule of spiritual practices and serious studies, but the nuns remain particularly cheerful and even perky.
7. You emphasised in your presentation of the trailer that the Buddhist nuns you were filming were not only nuns, but also modern women, who do not cut themselves off from the rest of the world. Why was this message of such importance to you? What perceptions do you hope to challenge with your film?
Nadia: As a woman, it was important for me to present the distinct concept of femininity we saw. These women dedicate themselves to the well-being of all sentient beings while advancing their spiritual knowledge at the same time. It is something close to combining self-development with care about others. However, they do not live in isolation from the modern way of life of other people in Nepal. By emphasizing this, I think it is easier for one to understand that young women who took that path are opinionated and appreciate what they gave up and what they gained when they became nuns. In a more general sense, many lay people perceive monastic people as very distant and incomprehensible or even outdated. When they find that monks and nuns have similar interests and modern habits of using e-mails, internet and watching modern movies, these stereotypes could give way to a better understanding of spirituality.
Adam: We want to challenge the stereotypes of nuns just focusing on prayers and studies all day who have removed much of the world’s happiness in their lives. To some extent, because of their schedules filled with rituals, ceremonies and classes, yes. But also there is another interesting side to becoming a nun, and this is what the film hopes to bring to the audience.
8. Now when you know the nuns’ daily round, what would make you devote your life to such a lifestyle?
Stefan: I would not sacrifice the freedom to structure my own days and plan my own life.
Tenzin: The nuns have a kind of fixed lifestyle all around year. They woke up really early like 3 or 4 in the morning and then start their morning prayers which are followed by the day classes and then the evening prayers. But to be able to dedicate their lives, in praying for others wellbeing and in preserving the teachings of dharma is amazing. The nuns are very happy for what they are doing. Hence, the sort of satisfaction and happiness they feel as nuns, I think would make me devote myself to such a lifestyle.
Alex: I am attracted by the intense spirituality of the monastic practice. I know there will be times of doubt and uncertainty, and there will be a lot of rigidity and unexpected circumstances that may not look “spiritual”, but I have no qualms of living as a monastic.
Nadia: You have to see monastic life as a vocation in order to devote yourself to it. At the moment, I do not see it as my life. However, I would like to go on retreat in the mountain at some point of my life.
Adam: To be honest, now I understand why people chose a lifestyle like this. And I also see why people oppose so much against it. It takes strength and mental discipline. I think it would take curiosity for me.
9. At times when technologies are ‘taking over’ the world, how do the nuns preserve their spirituality? Are they not tempted by lay life?
Stefan: Nuns can be tempted by lay life, and are allowed to quit the monastic life should they wish. The nuns we lived with were using technology as well, mobile phones and Facebook as well as DVD players, thus did not have to make the choice between either one life or the other. The life of Buddhist nuns is evolving with time. The Rinpoche (spiritual leader) we interviewed suggested that as long as technology does not distract the nuns from their practice, it is fine.
Tenzin: Well, with technologies taking over, it is not likely for the nuns to stay completely cut off from the modern developments. They are modern nuns and they have to keep track of what is happening in the world. But at the same time, they do not get sidetracked by these technologies because they already have the Buddhist teachings within them and the spiritual perception helps them focus on their religiosity.
10. Is this rhythm of life (which is probably different from what you consider as a common lifestyle) closer to the true human nature or just the opposite?
Stefan: I think that the nuns’ empathy and kindness is indeed a part of human nature, and their lifestyle seems much more simple and straightforward. However, I do not believe it is in the human nature to spend much of the day praying and studying, as the nuns do. Nuns do not practice agriculture or produce goods, being supported by lay-people for the good they do just like people in the western world trade their work for food and other needs.
Alex: This idea of human nature is a misunderstanding. There is no one human nature, I guess. I think to be close to human nature is for each person listening sincerely to their own “calling”. If we think of human nature as going back to basics, it may not apply to the nuns as they have for instance, the 9-year Buddhist Philosophy degree which is already a modern and standardised curriculum. This makes them stressed especially during exam preparations. It may not be essential, but this is a part of their vocation as nuns. I would say it is just as sophisticated as other forms of occupations, and not any closer to human nature.
Adam: For me, it is closer to true human nature. In the West we adopted a money-centred life in which possessions play a key role. But once you come to realise that you can not possess anything your view on life drastically changes.
11. What moment of the film production in Nepal do you consider most significant for you?
Stefan: I was really impressed with some of the interviews we led, some of which were on a personal basis. We got a lot deeper than I expected, and am grateful for that.
Tenzin: For me, interviewing the highest Rinpoche (spiritual leader) of the nunnery we filmed was one of the most significant. His name is Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche. He is such a prominent religious figure and we got a chance to actually go to his room and interview him personally. I made some mistakes while translating the questions to him but that doesn’t matter. He is so welcoming and humble and it went really well. I felt blessed. Also, by not having nuns and monks in my family, I never had a chance to live in a monastery or nunnery and to actually experience their daily lives. So the fact that we all lived with the nuns in their nunnery for a month and to actually see how they live is most significant for me. If not internally, we actually lived their lives at least, physically by waking up as early as they do and sit for prayers with them for hours and hours and do the necessary prostrations, etc. These moments are of such great experience and very significant as well.
Nadia: My interaction with the youngest nuns in a small nunnery in Pharping was the most significant part of the film production for me. They wash their clothes, clean the nunnery, help in the kitchen and pursue spiritual practices diligently. At the same time, they draw pretty girls, animals and their families and watch cartoons like other girls at their age. They could take care of themselves and do something as responsible as being nuns while having similar experiences as other children.
12. Where and when do you plan to present the documentary?
Alex: We plan to finish the film by Spring 2012. The nuns have to be updated about the editing of the film, and we have to make sure they agree with our representation of them, before we can release the final cut. This might take some time as it depends on their comments/suggestions. Somehow, it is still a special topic that we are taking seriously (regarding content) and so we hope that our supporters and audience can be patient if there are some delays regarding the editing process. The film will be released in different film festivals as well as making DVD copies available for sale. We are still in the process of finding a distribution company to partner with us in this plan. I suggest that if the readers are interested in obtaining a copy of the film, they can like us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/daughtersofdolma or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, they can stay tuned at www.daughtersofdolma.com.
We thank our supervisors, Professor Mario Aguilar, Dr Mattia Fumanti and Dr Robert Burgoyne, and our funders, The University of St Andrews, Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, The Spalding Trust UK, The Richardson Foundation, Rogue Productions and all other individual donors for lending their time, expertise and resources to make this project happen.
Bios of the Team
Alexander Co – Project Leader
Alex, from the Philippines, is a Social Anthropology and Psychology undergraduate student. He is the President of both the St Andrews Voluntary Service (SVS), the University’s main student volunteering organization, and also the University’s Tibet Society, which aims to introduce Tibetan culture to the student body. He plans to study and practise Traditional Tibetan Medicine in the future.
Adam Miklos – Film Director and Editor
Adam, from Hungary, is currently taking up Film Studies in the University of St Andrews. He is the President of a student-run filmmaking group that is integrated into the University’s Film Department – the St Andrews Film Collective. He sees film as a great medium which can be used to convey meaningful messages. He especially likes films that raise rather than answer questions.
Nadezhda Buhova (Nadia) – Communications Manager
Nadia, a Bulgarian, has been a volunteer and organiser of different activities promoting human rights, minority rights, and environmental awareness in Bulgaria. Currently, she is majoring in International Relations at the University of St Andrews, and is a member of the Union Debating Society and United Nations Youth and Student Association St Andrews.
Stefan Salow – Productions Manager
Stefan was born in Germany, but spent much of his childhood growing up in Mali and Tunisia. He is now a third year student at the University of St Andrews, majoring in Economics and Finance. Throughout his years at the university he has also taken modules in film studies and has participated in several student-initiated films both as actor and producer.
Tenzin Dolma – Translator and Subtitles Editor
Tenzin is ethnically Tibetan but was raised in India. She was awarded the Hugh E. Richardson Scholarship -a supported endeavour by H.H. the Dalai Lama- to study in the University of St Andrews for 4 years. Currently, she is majoring in Social Anthropology, and is a proud member of the University’s Tibet Society.
Katarzyna Bylow-Antkowiak (Kasia) – Field Supervisor
Born and raised in Poland, Kasia is currently a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews. Her first encounter with Tibetan Buddhism took place in 2005, when she first visited Dharamsala in India. The visit resulted in a growing interest in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and its contemporary forms in South Asia and South Asian diasporas around the world.