I recently had the chance to see the documentary movie The Sacred Sites of the Dalai Lamas: A Pilgrimage to the Oracle Lake.

Directed by Michael Wiese, Sacred Sites follows a group of pilgrims on their journey to Lhamo Lhatso, the Tibetan lake of visions. The voyage is told from the point of view of Steve Dancz, a film score composer, who incidentally is also the narrator, cameraman, and music composer for the documentary. He is joined by his teacher and guide Glenn Mullin, and Bhutanese monk Khenpo Tashi.

With Dancz providing the voice of the awe-inspired traveler, and Mullin and Khenpo Tashi offering insight, they make their way through Nepal and Tibet, visiting a variety of temples, stupas, monastaries, and caves along the way. Included are the famous Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple of Lhasa, the meditation cave of Lama Tsongkhapa, the titular Oracle Lake, and many, many more locations.

Sacred Sites is visually rich, with footage of an incredible variety of Buddhist sites. While its sprawling outdoor shots of mountains and valleys are gorgeous, the real beauty of this documentary is in how it captures ordinary people in their environments. And in this case, it is an environment overwhelmingly permeated by Buddhism.

Monks sit in rows at a monastery, reading aloud from scriptures, but they are not an overly austere presence, like some spiritual regiment. The camera focuses on them one by one, showing their faces, and lets us hear their individual voices. Some chant in a rapid staccato, others recite leisurely. One monk notices the camera, loses his concentration, and laughs for us.

In another scene, Wiese simply allows a group of Tibetan pilgrims at a holy site to react to the camera filming them. Each of the pilgrims exude their personal character, from every wrinkle, missing tooth, and intrigued expression. They all agree: “Strange TV.”

Dancz’s score fits in well with the movie, providing a quiet backdrop for the scenes that unfold. The music is never loud or overwhelming, and is characterized by steady chorus of peaceful chanting.

Sacred Sites may be disappointing to those who expect a very informative documentary. While there is at least, some cursory narration for most of the sites, the film is focused on capturing the essence of a pilgrimage. It is not ‘documenting,’ it is observing from close by.

Another selfish criticism is that the image quality is somewhat poor, though it is hardly fair to blame a presumably low budget film for that, when it is already offering a glimpse of things so rarely seen.

Overall, Sacred Sites is an excellent film for anyone interested in making a religious pilgrimage, and is probably the closest one can get without actually going.

The Sacred Sites of the Dalai Lamas: A Pilgrimage to the Oracle Lake (2007)

Director: Michael Wiese

Official Website | Amazon | IMDB

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