Follow by Email

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Russell Bush interview - Vultures of Tibet

(left to right) Director Russell.O.Bush, Producer Elisabeth Oakham ( and Cinematographer Drew Xanthopoulos

Although the democratization of media and the internet has brought many benefits for the global free – flow of information, it has also created problematic multiplicities of ‘representation’; most especially when individuals consume imagery across transnational boundaries. One such issue is the Tibetan cultural practice of ‘Sky Burial’, a funeral rite tied into the Buddhist concept of ‘reincarnation’ where a person’s body is eaten by vultures in broad daylight. However as the ‘filming’ of the event by Chinese and Western tourists has become common practice in recent years, the Sky Burial  has slowly become a troubling intersection of power , race and representation, with Tibetan cultural history hanging in the balance. Wading through misrepresentations of Western journalists video footage with an incisive, clear vision is award winning director Russell Bush with his short film Vultures of Tibet taking a needed methodical look into the phenomena of the ‘Sky Burial’, revealing the understated complexity of the event as a metaphor for contemporary politics, media representation and power dynamics in a spiritual, brooding audio- visual experience. Speaking with director Russell Bush and Cinematographer Drew Xanthopoulous at Edinburgh International Film Festival, Picture show Magazine delved a little deeper into the motive and meaning of the short film, exploring the role of the camera in ‘documentary’, Tibetan cultural oppression and the troubling commercialization of an ancient Tibetan rite. 

When did you first hear about ‘Sky Burial’ and what was it about the event that motivated you to make a film about it?
Russell: As you saw in there are some images shown that are taken by tourists and posted online. Sort of de –contextualised images. That’s how I first learned about the burial. I saw some photos that were posted on the website ‘Reddit’ and I think our world is full of these types of images that are capturing one culture and presenting the images to another culture without any context. So the 50 photos on ‘Reddit’ were of a Tibetan man being eaten by 50 vultures and I thought it was dangerous representation of that burial. So the other producer Elizabeth and myself who are based in Canada set out to do some further research for ourselves and just try to understand more about what the burial was about.  We actually set out to make a natural history film about it exploring the interaction of nature and culture as we researched it further and were on the ground in Tibet we realised that it was more a political interaction. So we followed the thread of discovery through the project and it yielded the film.

The film is in the ‘Rapture and Revelation’ shorts programme at EIFF. Why do you think Vulture of Tibet sits within this specific shorts programme? How would you describe its genre and approach?
Russell: That’s a good question.  I think the interesting thing about the film is that it has been (generally speaking) several different threads. ‘Rapture and Revelation’… It was in ‘Life and Death’ last week at AFI Docs and it was also in a programme specifically about birds in Home springs last week.  The film has several threads. It can be seen as a natural history fllm, as a socio- political documentary and can also be seen as a spiritual experience and I’m guessing that’s more so how it has been viewed here at the festival. Maybe it is in the thread because of its discussion about Tibetan Buddhism and how that influences the perspective on the political situation and the cultural exploitation situation in Eastern Tibet. So I’m actually really excited to see the film because it is narrative films that feed ‘narrative’ films and ‘documentary’ so hopefully the film should into the thread that has a cool synthesis of both.

The film was shot in Tibet when foreign journalists were barred from entering the region. How did you manage to get exclusive access?

Russell: Shooting a film in Tibet is a really challenging thing. There are two ways to do it really. You can work through the Chinese office of propaganda which is what it was called until 1998 but there was a little bit of consciousness about how that name would play internationally so they changed it to the office of publicity. Going through that channel, especially if you are making something about Tibet you probably won’t get a permit and will wait around 10 years to get answer on it. So we decided that if we were going to work on this theme in the part of the world we would have to do it using the back – channels. So we made the film rather clandestinely. We went with the sort of equipment that would allow us to be a fly on the wall, which involved taking some amount of risk upon ourselves to do so.  While we were there we actually had to flee the town we were filming in because there is a Tibetan spiritual / political leader called the Panchen Lama but his authority was captured by the Chinese government when he was only a boy and replaced by a Chinese appointed Panchen Lama and so when this individual travels to Tibet the Chinese government often expects protest to break –out. So that happened while we were there and all foreigners had to be kicked out of the town we were in. So while we were there we had to hide in this canyon while we were waiting for the storm to brew over. So there were some challenges that came up and I guess more specific to your question how did we gain access? The other consideration is anonymity for the people involved working in that kind of fashion so with everyone that we worked with in the film, we had to be very mindful of their participation and how it affect their lives after the film was completed. Once the film is finished and showing at a festival the effect is just beginning, so what we really needed to take in consideration. Taking that into account we used the testimonies we recorded in Tibet and took those words and re –recorded it with refugees in India who came from the same town. So the hands that you see and all those voices were from people outside of Tibet.

Was ‘protecting’ Tibetans through this process needed to secure their co –operation to do interviews?
Russell: I don’t think it was actually. One of the challenges of making work across cultures is being able to clearly communicate the media politics of it. You can tell someone this is what we intend to do with the film. It’s not like you would hand someone a contract saying ‘would you sign this release for us’ because it doesn’t really work that way. It’s also challenging to say we are going to show it at film festivals, its going be online and VOD because they are not going to know what you are talking about. So I think it’s important for the filmmaker to take the responsibility level much further working within this situation. So we had developed a communication via our contacts there to help us gain access in the field but I think because of that it was necessary for us to push as far as we could to protect those sources.

As the film touches upon the commercialization of the event through the amount of people filming the event, how would you address possible accusations that you as filmmakers are complicit in filming the burial yourselves? Did you plan to use the style and cinematography to separate your ‘filming’ from that of ‘tourists’?
Cinematographer Drew Xanthopaolous
Russell: I think we have tried to approach it in an observational style. I think the difference comes in context however. If that criticism were to be made I would say that the images from people who are participating on a tourist level are different from our film are different from our film because they express no conversation with the Tibetan community. Those images don’t have the interviews we have done and don’t look at themselves. As you have seen the film, I intentionally left in a moment where we put the camera way and see us walking around implicating us as observers. I would be surprised if any of the tourists turned the camera upon themselves and said ‘I am bearing the witness to this and the effect of having a camera here is changing the event in some small way. So I hope there is a reflexivity in the way we have shot it. But really it all comes down to context and the scope of how you look at the event.

With regards to the sound design / aesthetic did you attempt to capture a tone that represented ‘Buddhism’ in Tibet as a region? What concepts did you brief the sound design around?
Russell: I think that what the goal of the film is (in 21 minutes if you can) is to try to first acclimate the viewer to the way a Tibetan would view Sky Burial. So have the viewer learn it on Tibetean terms and then challenge that understanding with the new influx of commodifying this culture via tourism. So I think that the soundscapes helps us do it. We worked with the composer on the film Hanan Townsend and although we didn’t really intend it at first we spent 9 months working on the score for the film and it’s only a 21min film with 3 pieces of music but it had quite an evolution. We talked a lot about the sound being married with the landscape and almost being the ‘voice’ of the earth. 
Drew (Cinematographer):  The discussion I and Russell had about the aesthetics of the film was that we knew it was going to have a huge spiritual component talking about Buddhism and ‘Sky Burial’ and its relationship with nature, so we chose an aesthetic which was very omniscient, objective, grounded. It’s not one that is ‘shaky’ and uncertain but an aesthetic that sits patiently and watches things happen and that felt like a really appropriate way to represent the culture we were shooting. After we spent time with them it felt like the tone of the Tibetans we met and spoke with. It wasn’t one of confusion, or outright anger. Their foundations were as solid as the earth that they walked on. 

I suppose this would be especially fitting with the thread of ‘reincarnation’ that defines Sky Burial as an important cultural rite...
Russell: Absolutely. There are very subtle touches in the score including human breaths that interact with the wind and those moments come as were are entering the burial in the film and leaving the human body at the end of the film. I think the film itself follows an arc of life. I guess the point is to represent the Sky Burial as Tibetans see it and not as we see it. I think we tried to approach the film as ethnographic as possible an approach with this sort of thing, which I acknowledge and think is just an aspiration. We had the opportunity on the edit of the film before we signed off on the picture lock from the inhabitants from the village and their feedback was very valuable, properly communicating the weight of the Burial and its spiritual intention.

Did you also feel responsibility to avoid ‘sensationalism’ when producing images because when I saw the footage of the Sky Burial I didn’t find it shocking but through Reddit it is instantly a lot more a lot more visceral?
Drew (Cinematographer): We quickly realised that there were certain images that even we couldn’t look at, so therefore an audience couldn’t really look at. So we changed strategy for the next Sky Burials that we tried to come up with artistic ways to imply what was happening. 
Russell: There was definitely a preference what we were able to show and not able to show. Showing a face of a dead person would be in bad taste and insulting to the family.
Drew: (Cinematographer): There was a question asked of us at Hot Docs and I think it encompasses a lot of what we were getting at, he stated that for most of the film he was watching and thought to himself ‘wow this is the first time I am watching a film about Tibet that doesn’t have an outright political voice until I saw the last shot of the film’ and he said I feel compelled to ask you why did you choose to include that last shot and suddenly point a finger not at the culture but at a nation. 
Russell: It’s difficult to point the finger I think because I think it is an international situation but I think it is impossible to make a film ethically about something that lives in a vaccum and I guess the answer to that question was that Sky Burial does not live in a vaccum and is not something you can put on a shelf or visit in a museum. You need to look at the entire situation otherwise we would be metaphorically preying on the culture as vultures ourselves.  

When a Tibetan in the film laments the huge tourist gathering at a Sky Burial with the line ‘If we went to a Chinese funeral and took pictures it would be considered ruse and immoral’ it is clear that Funeral etiquette echoes the cultural insensitivity / difference between Chinese and Tibetans. Could you shed some light on the how the Sky Burial echoes the political conflict between China and Tibet.
Russell: I think the interesting thing about that line is that it reveals an imbalance of power in the opportunity to represent each other. The interesting thing about that line is that there is not even an opportunity for a Tibetan to go film a Chinese funeral. Another thing that is interesting is the thread of technology and the internet and that imprint on the Chinese – Tibetan relationship because you have a situation where they are on different sides of the digital divide. It’s possible for anyone outside the region – be they Chinese, American, Western –European – to go in and take pictures and post them on the internet and it’s possible that the people that they are representing never see these pictures. So there is clearly an imbalance of power and I think that is why it is important to get it as right as you can when representing something like the Sky Burial and I think the Burial itself is something that represents a lot of what is happening with Tibet in general now. There is a large commoditization of the culture that is happening now because of the very rampant development of the tourist industry. I would say the commoditisation of Sky Burial is part of that.

Do you hope this film will produce more interest into the complexity of the Chinese / Tibetan relationship?
Russell: I hope the film can help raise awareness about how the economic footprint is closely related to the humanitarian footprint and that’s not just the Chinese / Tibetan relationship. I think many people throughout the world are interested in travelling to Tibet but much of the money spent in doing that goes to further (in my opinion) oppressing the religious and humanitarian expression of Tibetan freedoms. For example of you want to travel to Lassa you can just rent a car and drive you ether need to take the Tibetan railroad or you need to fly into Lhasa and that supports the institution that is replacing Tibetan culture there. Also one of the really interesting things for me as an American is the US relationship with China and how our economic ties further support or get in the way of talking about the humanitarian issues there. Yes so I hope the film can raise awareness that all of these things are linked and to be responsible when being a traveller (not a tourist) somewhere and its very challenging to interact with a culture that’s not your own while doing it in a way that isn’t exploiting that culture.

Do you think that technology and the actual role of the camera is indicative of being unable to truly capture the full context of an event and what it represents. With an event captured by so many tourist cameras do you think there is a responsibility of using a camera to film an event such as the Sky Burial?
Russell: That’s a very interesting question. I’ll give an example right. We were here in Edinburgh and the castle here is amazing and beautiful. We were walking down the street yesterday and Drew the cinematographer asked  “Do you want a picture in front of the castle and I did because it’s a beautiful castle but I kind of just didn’t want to be ‘that guy’ in front of the castle like “Hi I’m like here in front of the castle”. I saw some locals sitting down drinking a pint and I could tell at that moment I was a tourist and I think that’s fine because you want to travel and interact and (it’s an amazing castle) but at the same time you want to have a deeper connection to it. I think the camera just makes those relationships somewhat easier and perhaps lazier and I think it can be used as a weapon in the wrong situation. In Tibet there were perhaps even more offensive photos. There is the potential of photos that do more active damage than even those of Sky Burials. While we were there we saw photos of young Tibetans taking baths in rivers that were being photographed by tourists walking in and out of these springs and it gives you power to hide behind this object that is almost like some sort of subliminal effect the camera gives you. I think it is the interaction of that digital divide.

With the style everyone created were you trying to get away from this ‘point and shoot’ style of ‘documentary footage’ to try and create a deeper meaning and spiritual footage?

Russell: We were in Washington DC last week and heard Errol Morris talk about ‘truth’ and he asked “what is it about observational footage that makes it true, you are going to edit it, so why is it true?”. The interviews and the editing of our film is hopefully a process that will get to the deeper “truth” of it but  I don’t think it would have necessarily been a ‘true’ film if we just sat there and observed a Sky Burial and watched these people (who many Americans might not be able to distinguish between Chinese / Tibetan) take photos. So I guess my answer to my question is that it is in the pursuit of truth to include those testimonies of Tibetans and to include the spiritual reality of the Sky Burial.

Did you have any dialogues or reactions from any of the “tourists” taking pictures at the Sky Burial. Did they realise the potential destructive nature of their own acts?

Russell: That’s a really complicated question. When we first got to Tibet we intended to make a film that didn’t have tourists and didn’t expect the sheer multitude there. So were trying to shoot beyond them, in-between their shoulders and film the event without a sense of perspective but it was impossible. They were walking everywhere and it was really frustrating so we communicated with others and decided to widen the lense out and show what was happening. That was the immediate reaction of it but the complicated thing was that I don’t think these people were doing it intentionally and I personally don’t have contempt towards them as human beings and neither do the Tibetans that I have spoken with. They see it as rather a group dynamic thing or indoctrination. When we returned to an additional Sky Burial and one of the people we collaborated with took it upon himself to speak with the tourists on a personal level and said “hey do you understand what you are doing here, this is death of someone who grew up in this community and this is their final imprint” (sort of explaining what Sky Burial is) and they were apologetic, put the camera down and changed their perspective. One of the monks chases of the groups of tourists in the film and (the tourists) state that this is totally unfair “where’s our refund on our ticket”. So it’s a really complicated interaction.

Will any ordinary people in Tibet get to see this film and are you aiming this film towards people who can enact humanitarian and cultural change?
Russell: Oh gosh. I would really love the film to be seen by people who are going to visit Tibet. I would love it to be seen in mainland China mostly. I would also love it to be a sort of checkpoint ‘watch this film before you visit Tibet’.  There are some realities going that we need to pay to attention to if we want to responsibly visit this region. The Sky Burial represents a lot of active political interactions going on but it is slowly becoming like an amusement park. The sort of folks that are governmentally involved in the local situation: the reality of that event is that there are two monasteries in the town, one of which has been for 800 years (where the monks we see in the film are from) and there is another newer monastery and the difference between the two is that, the newer monastery worships this deity called ‘Shugden’ which has been outlawed by the Deli Llama as a deity to no longer follow, as Shugden is a ‘warring’ deity. So the local Chinese government has used this division as a way to drive a wedge between the Tibetan communities in this town, so a lot of money has been given to the older monastery as a way to buy influence so that influence has allowed the ‘Sky Burials’ to become an attraction or ‘commodity’. I don’t know if this film will cause change or not but I think change is in the hands of normal people within Tibet.

After the Edinburgh Film Festival where can people see this film? Have any networks shown interest so far?
Russell: We have a couple more festivals that we are going to show at and we don’t have it available online yet and our goal is to seek broadcasts for it on – demand or cable. Hopefully we can get something in the U.K and US. We will have to wait and see. We actually showed last week in Edinburgh at the ethnographic festival here but it will be showing again in Los Angeles on the 30th at the Directors Guild and we have pitched it to a bunch of festivals. I’m sure it will available online in some capacity in the next six months or so.

On your site you say you attracted to stories about myth, superstition and understanding new ways of approaching them through cinema. What do you think it is about Vultures of Tibet that places in these categories?
Russell: I do feel very connected to these specific themes in Vultures of Tibet. There are some films in India that I would like to start researching. I basically take some photo or idea, story or oral history that can’t easily be contextualised and try to unpack that idea and that what a film does for me as an individual and as a filmmaker. That is the process of context. So yeah I am always looking for the thing that I can’t easily understand or that no-one really knows about. I think the world is full of fascinating stories out there waiting to be explored. 

No comments:

Post a Comment