Film Brings Dalai Lama to You
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
So, about six months ago, Radio City Music Hall, right here in New York City, was packed to the rafters. All 6,000 seats sold out for a special appearance on a stage that has hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and countless Rockettes, but there was a different kind of celebrity in the spotlight that night. The Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, and thousands came out to hear his teachings on how to find enlightenment.
Well, if you missed that event, you'll be able to see it on DVD this summer, thanks in part to Richard Gere. The actor partnered up with the oldest Tibetan Buddhist center in New York to bring the Dalai Lama to Radio City last October, and with National Geographic, to film the appearance for a new documentary which is called "The Dalai Lama: Peace and Prosperity."
It debuts today at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. And joining us here now in studio is Nicholas Vreeland. He's director of New York's Tibet Center, and he's one of the film's executive producers. Nicholas, thanks for coming in, we appreciate it.
Mr. NICHOLAS VREELAND (Executive Producer, "The Dalai Lama: Peace and Prosperity"; Director, Tibet Center): Thank you.
MARTIN: So, if you don't mind, since we have you here, I would like to start by asking you a few questions about your own personal history which is quite interesting. You are not just the - one of the executive producers of this film. You yourself are also a Buddhist monk.
You have been a monk for more than 20 years, and your background is perhaps different than perhaps what folks might think of when they think of a monk's background. Your father was a diplomat. Your grandmother was the iconic fashion editor of Vogue, Diana Vreeland. And you yourself were raised in the Episcopalian Church. How did your life change when you went to India for the first time in 1973?
Mr. VREELAND: I think that what - the main change that India taught me, and it taught me that over the years that I lived there, was the idea of changing oneself rather than trying to change the environment. India's a country that, if you try to change it, it doesn't give much. And you develop this understanding that to be happy you have to bring about changes within yourself.
MARTIN: And kind of surrendering, because you're not going to make external changes. The only thing you can control is making changes within yourself.
Mr. VREELAND: Surrendering and changing, yes. It's not merely accepting, it's actually working at developing the ability to accept.
MARTIN: And you lived there for many years studying Buddhism. You were - you became the Dalai Lama's photographer when he made his first trip to the U.S. in 1979. How in the world did that happen?
Mr. VREELAND: Well, I went to India earlier with a large wooden view camera, and I think everyone was so impressed by the camera, by the size of the camera, that they thought I actually knew how to take pictures.
MARTIN: You actually looked like you knew what you were doing!
Mr. VREELAND: And so they asked me if I would be the photographer on that visit.
MARTIN: Wow. And how did your relationship with him then evolve? And your role in his work, in disseminating his message in a more public way?
Mr. VREELAND: Well, from the very start, from when I took the photograph that I was able to take of him in 1979 in India, and asked him what I could do for his people who had been so kind and supportive to me during that journey around India, he said, you can study. You can practice. That's the greatest contribution you can make.
And really, my life has been a process of trying to fulfill that order. It's maybe easier to get out there and try to fix the world and try to devote yourself to causes. His - the task he gave me was to work on myself, work at diminishing attachments and developing patience and compassion.
MARTIN: Do you...
PESCA: Can I ask - do you think that, because of your background and the fact that you come from the world you do, where media was very present, did you ever give him advice or instruct him so that he used your advice to become the very media-savvy figure he is today?
Mr. VREELAND: Oh, no, never would I give his Holiness the Dalai Lama advice.
PESCA: So then, how does he understand it so well? How to become a celebrity unlike most any other religious leader has, especially one in exile?
Mr. VREELAND: Well, I think that that's touched upon in the film that we are premiering today, when he talks about the fact that we are all the same in being humans. We are all the same in wanting happiness. And through that recognition, he knows how we think, and he says we should know how we all - each other thinks because we are the same. And I think out of that recognition, he knows how to communicate.
PESCA: Empathy - if we're all the same, then he's speaking to a place that he knows...
Mr. VREELAND: Exactly.
PESCA: And that we can relate to, rather than thinking of the audience as separate people from him.
MARTIN: How - explain to us how this film came to be. Who decided that it was going to be a good idea - that it would make good film to record the Dalai Lama? I mean, he's just - he's sitting on a stage giving a talk. It is not an overly produced kind of film experience. It's watching the Dalai Lama give a speech. Who decided this is a film in the making?
Mr. VREELAND: I think that it - it was recognized, once we had it in the can, that this was a film. The National Geographic producers wanted to capture it as a talk by the Dalai Lama that they could produce and distribute.
But once it was made, we realized that this was a very intimate look into the inner workings of this man, because you sit there for an hour and a half and listen to him and watch him and watch his gestures. And there's an intimacy to that situation.
MARTIN: Is there? Because, you know, I haven't seen him, but I've had friends who have gone to hear him speak and they say that part of what is so powerful about that is being in the physical presence, being with this corporal body of people that are observing him, but also being in his presence. Does that translate to the film?
Mr. VREELAND: It does because, though you're not with people physically and you're not with him physically, you are so close to him. You are able to be so intimate with him in that the camera is so close to him that that comes through.
MARTIN: Who was this film made for? Is this for people who are already predisposed to, perhaps, go - maybe they've seen him speak before or have read his teachings?
Mr. VREELAND: I think that the idea of National Geographic was to bring his message to their audience, whoever their audience is. And as they made it, they realized that this audience could be a far greater audience.
And as we think about what to do with the film now, we realize that we could have it show in college towns and in movie theaters throughout the country, not just on DVDs that people buy.
MARTIN: Is there any political motivation behind the timing of the release? I mean, clearly, what we've seen in the news - the headlines, Tibet is very much top of mind for many people as we look towards the Olympic Games in China. We see the protests surrounding the torch relay. Anything to the timing?
Mr. VREELAND: No. Quite honestly, it just happens that it came out at this time. Now we're very happy that, at this time, his message - his message of love, his message of empathy, his message of the importance of developing inner peace in order to deal with the greater problems of the world - happens to be timely, happens to be the aspect of the Dalai Lama that is important for people to know and see today.
PESCA: Has he seen the movie?
Mr. VREELAND: No, no, but he's lived it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PESCA: He trusts you, though. I mean, I wouldn't think that you would edit it in a way that would look bad, but there's a lot of trust implicit in it, isn't it?
Mr. VREELAND: Maybe, maybe, yes, maybe he trusts me.
MARTIN: What - if you can explain, Mike touched on this a little earlier with his question, but - he, the Dalai Lama has had such a very public relationship with celebrities, specifically Richard Gere, the actor who has adopted the case of Tibet, the issues surrounding Tibet as his own personal issue in many ways.
In what ways has the Dalai Lama's relationship with celebrities, American celebrities in particular, furthered his intentions and in which ways has it perhaps undermined his intentions?
Mr. VREELAND: Goodness. First, I should say that his relationship with celebrities has not been - has not come out of any kind of pursuit of celebrities or celebrity. It's that these celebrities have become interested in Buddhism, have become interested in the cause of Tibet, and out of that has developed a relationship. And of course, there is a recognition that a celebrity speaking on a subject is going to be listened to by more people, but nothing more than that.
MARTIN: Mm hm. Has - was there ever a deliberate decision that was made, you know, we recognize that this could give us some more powerful vehicle to reach broader audiences, to leverage this?
Mr. VREELAND: Yes, definitely, but I don't think that it was calculated. I think it just evolved out of the interest of these people.
MARTIN: And finally, what is your personal intention for this film? As a co-executive producer, what do you want to see happen with this movie? What do you want people to take away from it?
Mr. VREELAND: Well, you know, as a Buddhist monk and as a practitioner, what I would really like is to be able to live what he is teaching, to actually embody it, to develop it within myself. And I hope that others will feel the same way.
MARTIN: The movie is called "The Dalai Lama: Peace and Prosperity." It premieres today at the Tribeca Film Festival. It will be available on DVD starting July 8th. Nicholas Vreeland is director of New York's Tibet Center. He is one of the film's executive producers. Thank you so much for coming in. We appreciate it.
Mr. VREELAND: Thank you.
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