Jhamtse Gatsal, the remote children’s community where we made our film Tashi And the Monk, is a long way from the nearest city. After my first visit a couple of years ago, I shared the bouncy, seemingly endless 18-hour Jeep ride back through the mountains of Northeast India with two American volunteers who’d been teaching the kids. At some point, one of them asked whether I’d seen a documentary called I Am, a Mountainfilm 2010 world premiere about Hollywood director Tom Shadyac, who changes his life and sets out to meet wise people and ask them the big questions.
It wasn’t until a year or so later that I finally saw the film and was taken immediately by Shadyac’s remarkable journey. Here is a man whose brush with death shifted his focus from the considerable trappings of his success to a personal search that he was brave enough to share on film. There was a generosity of spirit that infused the project, a desire to bring the audience along for the ride. It struck a chord.
My own journey took me back to Jhamtse Gatsal a few months later, where I returned to follow a feeling that something special was happening on this isolated Himalayan mountaintop. I’d seen how the community’s founder, a Buddhist monk called Lobsang, was using the challenges of his own troubled childhood to grow an extended family of abandoned kids with love and compassion.
Along with my friend and co-director Johnny Burke, I spent almost three months at Jhamtse. The kids melted our jaded hearts. Lobsang humbled us with his kind presence. Then, when we felt we had the makings of a film, we headed south to Kerala and rented a cheap apartment to edit near the beach. It was an experiment to find a new way of working that would allow the joy we felt in the community to continue through the often-grueling post-production process.
It was from Kerala that I wrote to Emily Long, program director at Mountainfilm, letting her know about our film. Would she be interested, I asked, in seeing a rough cut?
For some reason, I knew Mountainfilm would be the right place for this film. I’d never been to Telluride, Colorado. I didn’t know I’d arrive there to find prayer flags and peaks similar to the ones we’d been surrounded by at Jhamtse. Or that we’d encounter a mountain community that would feel connected to the one we’d filmed. Or even that we might win a couple of awards and that a few months after those amazing days at the festival in May of 2014 that we’d be invited to Aspen to screen at MountainSummit.
And then it got better. After the MountainSummit screening of Tashi And The Monk, I discovered that instead of the usual Q&A, a discussion about compassion would be hosted by Tom Shadyac.
And that’s how I got to share the stage with the maker of I Am at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen and witness him take the space our film opened up to lead an audience deeper. His honesty unlocked the honesty of others. His storytelling held the room. We circled and dived together as he quoted Rumi (“The wound is the place where the light enters us.”), explored the roots of compassion and the profound need to change ourselves first (“There is no big beast out there. It’s all us reflected out. When we get different, it gets different.”).
Tom paused, “This is the exception and not the rule. I always wanted it to be the rule, conversations like this…” And I realized that the whole audience was his people — looking for answers, wondering how to live right in this world — and he was ours. Toward the end, a man stood up and took the mic: “I’m a better person after four days of films that have moved me to get involved and do something”.
Ever since our ancestors gathered round campfires, the combination of storytelling and flickering lights has captivated us. As filmmakers, we set out into the unknown to capture and bring back stories worth sharing. Sometimes, when the compass is true, we find a film that wants to be made and are fortunate enough to be the ones to give it form. The journey of this film has taken a little luck, a lot of trust in our intuition and a healthy sprinkling of mountain (and Mountainfilm) magic.