Following The Story Of A Monk, A Mischievous Girl, And A School Where ‘Magic Happens’

Posted on October 28, 2015 in Culture-Vulture, Staff Picks


Editor’s Note: What happens when you realize what your true calling in life is? Is life then easier or that much more difficult? Lobsang Phuntsok, once a spiritual leader in the US, returned to India to an area close to Guwahati to set up a community that takes care of orphaned and neglected children. One among them is Tashi Drolma. A mischievous child with a troubled past in whom Lobsang sees the potential to blossom and grow. Directors Johnny Burke and Andrew Hinton in their moving film, follow these two characters who tell us so much about how amidst all the darkness, there is still a silver lining. Following are excerpts from an interview with co-director Andrew Hinton.

This interview was originally published on the DIFF Blog, here

Lobsang Phuntsok’s story is revealed in a wonderful scene early in the film, when he’s telling the children a story before bedtime. Was this a revelation to you as filmmakers as well, and how was your interaction with Lobsang prior and during the shooting of the film?

Lobsang is an amazing man whose own epic life story was really the inspiration for the film. He was a gracious host at the community, and we felt very honoured that he trusted us to come and tell the story of the work/magic happening at Jhamtse Gatsal. We knew about his back story and wanted to somehow get that into the film in a way that wasn’t an interview, so it was perfect when he shared the story with the kids before bedtime one night.

How did you come across Jhamtse Gatsal and decide to shoot a film there?

A couple of years ago I was in India researching a project in Nagaland, and I got an assignment to visit a remote school called Jhamtse Gatsal. Jhamtse is a two-day drive from Guwahati, along bumpy winding roads and tracks dotted with groups of women breaking rocks down to gravel with hammers. We drove the last few miles in the dark until the track ended and we were met by 80 pairs of blinking eyes. After walking the welcome line of kids and teachers in a daze, I felt someone throw a little pair of arms around me. Then another. And another. And I realised I’d come to a special place. My three-day visit turned into three weeks.

Eighteen months went by before I managed to raise the funding to return to tell their story. This time I had a co-conspirator in Johnny Burke – editor and filmmaker extraordinaire- who joined a couple of weeks later. And so on a bench looking out across the valley to Bhutan, we spent many hours discussing life, filmmaking and the search for meaning. We wrestled with the themes we saw in Lobsang’s work and talked about ways to somehow capture and share the magic we caught glimpses of.

Tashi Drolma is a great representative of the growth these children go through since they’re introduced to Jhamtse Gatsal, as well as a kind of reflection of Lobsang’s childhood. Was the choice to use her as one of the central characters obvious from the moment you got there, or how did she grow on you?

I had met Lobsang on my first visit to the community in 2012 but Tashi arrived a few months before we got there in October 2013 to make the film. She made her presence known pretty quickly – whenever there was a fight or a tantrum she was always the source of the crying or screaming. She’s a big personality in a small body and was definitely having trouble adjusting to life in the community. We were very fortunate to be there when that started to shift and she began to very slowly make friends and soften. She had obviously been through a lot of difficult stuff in her short life, and she was wild and unpredictable. All of which made her a pretty compelling person to follow around so that’s what we started doing.

It is clear from the film that Lobsang can only accept a small fraction of the requests he gets from families to take their children to Jhamtse Gatsal, and we get an impression of how hard it is to make these decisions in a few scenes. How was it to follow Lobsang to these villages where families are desperate to give their children away?

This was one of the most surprising experiences we had during the making of the film. We expected Lobsang to be greeted like a hero when he visited the villages but often it was the opposite. He’s known as the man who says ‘No’ (in the film he explains that they’ve had over a thousand requests to take kids into the community and only been able to say yes 85 times). We realised what a difficult position this puts him in – he understands better than anyone that sometimes it’s a matter of life and death and his answer will impact a family and a child in a very profound way. But he’s got finite resources and space. So it was pretty heartbreaking to see that despite his desire to help, he’s unable to save everyone.

Besides all the festivals and awards the film has gotten so far, you decided to distribute the film through Video on Demand platforms, such as HBO and Vimeo. Do you believe this is where the future of filmmaking is headed, and that traditional distribution methods are not being able to deal with the growing influx of new films made?

We are really learning about the life cycle of a film on this project. There are so many ways to reach audiences: the film has played well at festivals – especially mountain themed festivals – and has picked up 8 awards internationally. Vimeo seemed like a natural home – I won the Vimeo Documentary Award in 2012 and some of that prize money went into this film. So far, the ability to sell our film directly has been really exciting even if the numbers aren’t huge. But we’re also working with a sales agent who has been handling TV sales. Overall though, nothing can compare with the reach and support of a network like HBO, who have been amazing. They really supported the film in the US with lots of press and it gave us a great platform to launch it in the rest of the world.

Have you been in touch with Jhamtse Gatsal since you left, and is there anything you could share with us?

We’ve stayed in close contact with the community and hope to remain connected for many years to come. We decided to sponsor Tashi Drolma so we’ll be following her from afar while she completes her education at the community. She’s doing well, making friends and settling in to life there. Someday we’ll go back and pick up her story again. Lobsang joined us on Skype for a screening in NY recently, which was great. I think he’s been a little puzzled by the success of the film so it was wonderful for him to have a chance to interact with the audience and find out why they enjoyed it.

To read the full interview, head here.

‘Tashi And The Monk’ will have its India Premiere at the Dharamshala International Film Festival on Nov 6 at 11 AM.