Friday, June 24, 2005

Herzog's "Wheel of Time" Debuts in U.S.

Wheel of Time, Werner Herzog’s Tibetan Buddhism documentary, opened in the United States in New York City on June 15 for a one-week run, and while in its form as “observer” the film neglects to examine the “whys” of Buddhist life, it is magnificent to watch and can touch very deeply.

Filmed in Bodh Gaya and Graz (Austria) during the 2002 Kalachakra initiations (the 12-day process in which Tibetan Buddhist monks are ordained), and including spectacular footage of and around western Tibet’s Mt. Kailash, the 80-minute film features insightful -- and typically charming -- clips from the German filmmaker’s interview with His Holiness Dalai Lama.

But the film’s real “star” is the metaphor for the impermanence of life, in the form of the giant (seven foot diameter), meticulously created Kalachakra sand mandala, representing the wheel of time, that is traditionally created (and ultimately destroyed) for the initiation.

The mandala itself is extraordinary. It includes representation of 722 deities, symbolizing various aspects of consciousness and reality, all part of the ultimate wisdom of the Kalachakra deity. Dedicated to peace and physical balance, both for individuals and for the world, the mandala is painstakingly constructed of grains of colored sand, and, once created, is so intricately fragile that it must be encased in glass to protect it from even a human breath, which can destroy it.

Sand, traditionally made from crushed precious stones, is used in the mandala’s creation due to the precious substances involved and the great skill required to create a mandala’s exquisite details. Since each grain of sand is charged with the blessings of the ritual process, the entire sand mandala embodies a vast store of spiritual energy.

At the initiations’ conclusion, the mandala is destroyed by sweeps of His Holiness’ hand, and the sand is dispersed in the nearby river, from which it will ultimately enter the sea and spread blessings to the world.

There are many moments from Wheel of Time that will stay with viewers for a very long time, including an interview with a monk who traveled more than 3,000 miles to Bodh Gaya, doing body-length prostrations along the entire way, His Holiness’ playful description of the center of the universe, the various overviews and close-ups of the 500,000 pilgrims who traveled to Bodh Gaya for the event and the combination of grand scale beauty and physical hardships endured by those pilgrims who travel to and then circumambulate Mt. Kailash.

There are also scenes in which an explanation of the rituals and behaviors, and the fervor and devotion that accompany them, would be helpful, but Herzog, who also self-narrates the film, directs Wheel of Time as a witness, allowing the breathtaking visuals to speak for themselves. And for those with even a little knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, and the motivations of its practitioners, they do. Nevertheless, an opportunity to both engage and teach in the context of this powerful film has been only partly realized.

Werner Herzog is a writer, producer and director who founded his own production company in 1963. He has won numerous national and international awards for his films, of which Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) are most well-known. He has been voted the 35th best director of all time by Entertainment Weekly magazine.

Wheel of Time
(Germany, 2003, 80 minutes). Written and directed by Werner Herzog. Starring Thupten Tsering, His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama, Matthieu Ricard, Takna Jigme Sangpo.