Sunrise / Sunset

Sunrise / Sunset was a documentary film done in 2008 by a Russian team. It traces one day in the life of the Dalai Lama, in his exile in Dharamsala, in northern India.

The documentary is done in the Russian language, with English subtitles. Even when the Dalai Lama speaks in English they offer the subtitles, perhaps because his English is heavily accented.

The filming is generally slow and gentle, helping you feel the rhythms of this unique man's life. It begins before sunrise, with his helper monks coming to prepare his room, to lay out his pillows for his morning meditations. You see the Dalai Lama in his quiet moments - walking on his treadmill to keep his strength up, standing on his back porch and admiring the beautiful mountains. He talks conversationally - as if you were hanging out there with him on his back porch - about the nature of time, the need for compassion, the challenges that face our world. His laughter bubbles up out of him, and it's as if you're spending time with your best friend.

You see how he handles his public life as well. He walks through his town, mobbed by rabid fans, protected by a ring of monks, shielded from the sun by a large umbrella. You watch as he gives a lecture through a giant microphone system, with various groups listening to live translations in their own languages. You also sit in on a meeting with high level politicians and journalists, some who have waited years for this special opportunity.

It is very touching to see the man in his public roles, smoothly dealing with senior officials, and then to see him snuggled into his favorite chair in his private room, smiling as he flips through channels on his TV. He is, after all, a 75 year old man, carrying a large weight on his shoulders, doing his best to be the best role model he can for his followers. He says repeatedly "I am but a simple Buddhist monk."

When the documentary ends with him smiling, laughing, and waving as he heads back up to his bedroom, you really do wish him the best, and feel like you are waving good bye to a dear friend.

The second half of the documentary traces the documentary team's own footsteps as they travel through India and head back to Russia, first by bus, and then by train. It overlays the words and thoughts of the Dalai Lama, about poverty, the inequalities in the world, the need for compassion, over the views of how people in this part of the world live. The team films an extremely poor settlement in India where people barely have a tiny hut to live in or a morsel of food to eat. Then the camera pans to high overhead where tourists are flying by in hang gliders. Apparently the cost for one tourist to do their hang glider flight is more than a person in the village earns in their entire lifetime. Think about what money YOU will make in an entire lifetime. Now imagine a person casually strolled by your house and with a casual movement took out that wad of money, lit it all on fire, and then kept walking. How might that affect you?

The filmmakers showed how tightly packed the people are in China, the tiny houses they live in, and talked about the problems of overpopulation. Then, as the train traveled north and crossed into Russia, it showed the completely barren stretches, with not a person to be seen for miles and miles. The Dalai Lama's voice is overlaid, talking about how some countries have low population and are desperate for more people to work the land - where other countries are overpopulated and don't have enough room. Surely, he asks, there can be a balance found so everyone is happy? He understands that national interests currently interfere with these sorts of decisions, and he dreams of a future where we can work through those problems.

While the first half of the movie was quiet, smooth, and drew you in to its contemplation, the second half tended to be more "filmmaker artsy" with scenes of fast-zooming cars, smeared visuals, blurred and overlaid images, and other "special effects". For me it took away from the immersion. I would much rather have seen documentary style images of how the poor people in India lived, on the details of a poor person's life in China, and so on, to bring more meaning to the words. Seeing blurry fast moving cars didn't add much to the story for me.

Still, that's a fairly minor complaint about a movie which provides a quite unique look into the world of the Dalai Lama and a wake-up call for us all about the way many people struggle to survive. Well recommended.

I rented this DVD from Netflix with my own money.

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