Vajra Sky Over Tibet, the final installment of director John Bush’s Yatra Trilogy about Tibet, is a reverential act of bearing witness to a culture and religion being systematically erased by the Chinese. As a Buddhist, Bush was allowed unparalleled access to shoot inside Tibet’s holiest locales, and his film’s patient, plaintive gaze—lingering on Tibetans’ faces, ornamental artwork, and the sprawling mountains and sky that surround their cities—seeks to immortalize that which the Chinese have sought to destroy first through brute force (beginning with their hostile 1950 invasion) and, now, through underhanded population assimilation/infiltration strategies. Eschewing traditional nonfiction interviews for fear that Tibetans caught speaking on film might suffer reprisals, Bush instead resorts to narration (from himself, the Dalai Lama’s nephew Tenzin L. Choegyal, and singer Dadon) underscored by harmonic chanting to provide context for his footage. Yet since the doc is structured as a chronological recording of Bush’s journey, and because its commentary is largely focused on providing a sketchy history lesson about Tibet and its sacred beliefs, Vajra Sky Over Tibet delivers an experience akin to watching someone’s vacation home movies while listening to them detail, item by item, what they saw along the way. Further hampering the director’s portrait is his dull, flat video camerawork, which may succeed in de-exoticizing, and thus humanizing, Tibetan culture but, unfortunately, also largely saps the impressive visuals—most notably the climactic sight of a mountainside ceremony involving a giant Buddha tapestry—of their majestic, spiritual power. More detrimental, however, is that such an uncinematic PBS aesthetic fails to capitalize on the potential for creating harmony between image and subject, with facts and figures layered on top of scenes either generically or—as with a shot of a closed door, married to Bush talking about Chinese communists’ efforts to outlaw religion—superficially related. The result is a heartfelt tribute to the mortally threatened Tibetan way of life that, owing to a dreary mise-en-scène and lecturing voice-over, feels like the movie equivalent of an Eyewitness Travel Guide.
- Direct Pictures
- 89 min
- John Bush
- John Bush
- John Bush, Tenzin L. Choegyal, Dadon
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