The American director and Hoop Dreams producer speaks to SBS FIlm about his travels documenting traditional Tibetan Buddhists.
28 Nov 2011 - 3:28 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

The region of Zanskar has remained all but hidden from the world for centuries. Ringed by the jagged, stony majesty of the Himalayan mountain range in the north-west of India, the bleak but beautiful valley is home to the last untainted bloodline of traditional Tibetan Buddhists.

When filmmaker Frederick Marx was introduced to the Zanskari people and their deeply religious philosophies, he soon found inspiration for a documentary about an incredible endeavour – the local school children's dangerous journeys across the high mountains. At the heart of the story was a young monk, Geshe Lobsang Yonten, who serves as guide through the perilous high-altitude terrain and delivers the children to the Stongde Monastery, where they're educated in both Western curricula and the fading traditions and language of their Tibetan Buddhist ancestry.

Five years later, Marx completed his documentary, Journey from Zanskar, and now he's accompanying the film on its series of special engagements in Australia.

“I had never even heard of the place, and I consider myself pretty well-schooled and aware of Tibetan issues,” Marx tells SBS Film. “My agenda was to share the works of these amazing monks with the world. And a subset of that agenda was to bring to the world's attention this amazing, beautiful, dying indigenous culture called the Tibetan Culture of Zanskar.”

The persecution of the Tibetan people was ever-present for Marx, but he was convinced that any editorialising on his part would dishonour the essence of his project. “I don't think the film has landed in the hot water of the whole China-Tibet issue because, firstly, our film takes place wholly in India. I obviously have very strong opinions about the situation but I am proud to say those opinions are not present, I believe, in the film itself. My mission as a filmmaker is not to tell the world what I think about the world as much as to tell a powerful, heart-opening story about people they may otherwise have never known.”

It is a commitment to objectivity that Marx gambled with when he convinced activist-actor Richard Gere to narrate Journey from Zanskar. “I wrestled with that decision,” he says, frankly. “The last thing I wanted to do was ghettoise the film into a solely Tibetan arena. There was a reviewer who made a shockingly cynical comment, one that epitomises what my fears were, [who said] in his opening words 'Richard Gere narrates this film – what more need I tell you?'” Marx acknowledges that the high-profile stance that Gere has taken regarding issues in the region may fuel detractors, but he stands by the film's content. “I like to think that the film has universal appeal. To mothers, who have had to be separated from their child, for any reason. In fact, to anyone from the West, as the film reminds us how privileged we are.”

Marx rose to prominence as the producer of 1994's Hoop Dreams, director Steve James' epic documentary on the rise of two African-American youths from the urban sprawl of inner-city Chicago to the brink of college basketball glory; the film was Oscar-nominated, appeared on innumerable Best of the Decade lists and was enshrined in the National Film Registry in 2005. Marx was unaware of the similarities between his two films until friend and author Piko Iyer pointed them out. “He rightfully noted that Hoop Dreams is about two boys who are, in a sense, forced to leave home in order to pursue an education that will give them a leg-up to a better socio-economic standard in a school far from home,” notes Marx. “The difference, of course, is that the boys in Hoop Dreams have to give up their very rich black, urban culture in order to transubstantiate into a dominant white culture. That's the reverse in Journey from Zanskar, because the irony of these kids leaving home is that they are doing it in order to preserve their culture.”

The gruelling shoot (Marx and cinematographer Nick Sherman were the only crew) and the enormity of the post-production period (47 hours of footage in the Zanskari language had to be translated before editing could begin) meant that the film took nearly four years to complete. But Marx cites the philosophy of his company, Warrior Productions, as a key motivator in his drive to tell the story. “The mission statement is: 'Bearing witness, creating change'. To me, the two are intimately connected. If I am willing to bear witness, in an open-hearted way, to what other people are experiencing and (do that) exclusive of my own presence in impacting them – that is a gift in and of itself,” states the director. “I don't need to insert myself any further into their experience to have any greater impact. I feel strongly that as an artist I can most help the Zanskari people by trying to understand their experience and share and reflect that experience to the outside world.”