In the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, nestled deep in the Himalayas, two men seek to escape their mundane lives. One, a Western-educated university graduate, decides that he will be better off plucking grapes in the U.S. than working as a commissioned official in the local government. The other, a restless farm youth studying magic, cannot bear the thought of a life consigned to his village and so slips into a dreamworld of seduction and fantasy.
The two men embark on parallel, if separate, journeys. Their yearning is a common one—for a better and different life—and their efforts betray a similarly common assumption: that the grass is surely greener on the other side. Their story would most likely resonate with any audience, but for Bhutanese the tale is particularly powerful. It bears witness to the rapid transformation of contemporary Bhutanese society, and it evokes the uncertainties and anxieties of life lived at the crossroads of cultural change.
Travelers and Magicians is the first feature-length film recorded in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese national language. Shot in the rustic setting of rural Bhutan, against the raw backdrop of richly forested mountains, lush valleys, and white river rapids, the film is the creative vision of director and spiritual teacher Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.
While red-robed monks are a common sight in this far-flung bastion of Vajrayana Buddhism, it is still quite unusual to see an enrobed figure in a peaked cap directing a large film crew in Bhutan’s remote countryside and leading an entourage of cars, buses, and trucks carrying five tons of assorted film equipment over the meandering mountain highways. Film sets, however, are nothing new to the forty-one-year-old rinpoche. He served as a consultant on Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1992 film, Little Buddha, and directed the quietly successful Tibetan film The Cup in 1999.
Some might find it surprising that Khyentse Rinpoche, the reincarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892) and the spiritual director of two meditation centers and two Buddhist philosophy colleges in East Bhutan and India, is spending so much time behind a camera. He, for one, sees no conflict. In his view, the screen offers a powerful medium for the Buddha’s teachings. “The beauty of Buddhism is that we can use any skillful means to teach,” says Rinpoche. “Buddhism is one philosophy that really has this wealth of openness. I think film is today’s medium for reaching people, and we should take advantage of that.”
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