8th January 2018
Behind the Scenes: Buddhism’s Untold Journey
‘Buddhism’s Untold Journey’ chronicles the story of Danish Buddhist Hannah Nydahl and her quest to introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the western world. The feature-length film spans six decades and combines archive footage with a wealth of film shot across the world. The film crew traversed far-flung locations – including India and Hong Kong – as well as those closer to home – Germany, France, Spain and Denmark.
After collecting footage and working through hours upon hours of archive material, the production team joined forces with award-winning editors Simon Barker and Hamish Lyons to bring the film together.
All profits from the film go to support a Buddhist charity based in Hannah’s home country of Denmark.
In the interview that Adam Penny, Connected Pictures’ Managing Director and practicing Buddhist, discusses the highs and lows of creating the film.
Buddhism’s Untold Journey is part of Connected Pictures’ For Love not Money collection. Can you tell us about this series and why it’s important?
Wow that’s a big opening question! Love Not Money is a strand of Connected Pictures in which we work on projects or subjects that we feel passionate about, or on stories that we want to tell. We want our team to be able to explore and create films regardless of brief, brand or remuneration. It allows a different mindset: you tell stories in a different way and can explore different techniques of storytelling and shooting styles etc. At the end of the day we are creatives with purpose, so it’s important to have time to explore our craft, or tell stories that we think are important. Hannah is an interesting one because, in addition to the importance of the story, all profits go back to a Buddhist charity.
Why did you want to make this film?
I’d been a Buddhist for a few years when Marta Gyorgy-Kessler, the co-director and producer, asked if I’d be interested in making this documentary. I had met Hannah a few times before she died, and she was such an amazing woman. But more amazing was how she lived and what she expressed. It was that which really drew me in.
The story spans six decades, and at such an interesting time in the world’s history. The world was waking up to so many things and Hannah was in the middle of the most interesting parts of it. She and her husband were children of 1960s Denmark, true hippies. At first they explore their minds with LSD, then, realising that wasn’t the answer, they turned to Buddhism and meditation. They were in Poland and Russia teaching and helping people as communism was breaking down, they were kidnapped by Guerrillas in South America. There is obviously a big political story with the Chinese and the Tibetans, it’s a real rollercoaster of a story.
And then there was Hannah herself. Throughout her life she seemed to live in a way that seemed totally free yet with other people still in mind. Her and her husband had very little possessions, and spent their life travelling to introduce people to Buddhism. They didn’t go to the nice, white middle class countries and regions like a lot of the lamas, they went where they thought they could help the most. This was all fascinating to me.
Finally, I think it was because I had the chance to dive deeper into a subject I was passionate about and really see it from the inside. That’s one thing that we are very lucky to be able to do as documentary makers.
How do you begin condensing 60 years into a feature-length film?
With a lot of research and a lot of structuring. We structured the documentary before we even started filming. We had different levels that we worked on: what was happening in the outer world, what was happening to Buddhism, what was happening in Hannah’s life and, of course, what we wanted to express about her. We had a master ‘story matrix’ that covered all aspects; from the wider world events, through to which interviewees would talk about what subjects and stories. The concept of freedom came up a lot. Freedom means different things to different people around the world and in the film we explored how its meaning has changed from the 60s through to today. Freedom means something very special in Buddhism. Part of the goal is to not be distracted or tied to anything – not the outer world (possessions, constructs of society etc) or the inner world (thoughts, emotions or beliefs) – but to be free in a way that is completely non-conceptual.
You filmed all over the world. Why was it important to film in all these places?
We wanted to try and capture as much as we could first-hand. We shot with Guy Nisbett who has done a lot of music promos and commercials to get some of these ancient Buddhist places on film. This footage was important – otherwise the film had the potential to be a dry documentary with a lot of archive.
Were there any particularly memorable moments in the making of the film?
When we travelled to Bodhgaya, the place where Buddha became enlightened, I got incredibly ill. I spent most of our time there in a Zen Monastery lying in bed feeling wretched. It was so bad that when I got back home they put me in quarantine because they weren’t sure what was wrong with me. There is a fantastic saying that when, as a Buddhist, you go to these special places the best thing that can happen to you is to die, the next best thing is that you get sick. From that point of view I guess you could say I was very lucky! The other very special trip was to Sikkim and the surrounding area (including Darjeeling and Sonada), where a lot of old Buddhist monasteries are. These places are steeped in history and people have meditated there for hundreds of years. It sounds esoteric to say it, but you can feel it. It was very special.
The film has been seen by more than 16,000 people and is preparing for a European DVD release. How important is the audience when making a film like this?
It’s always important to think about the audience when you are making a film, especially for a niche subject such as this. The hardest thing was how to start the film and not lose people from the beginning. So we thought, “What do people know about Buddhism?” They either know (a) His Holiness the Dalai Lama (who has no bearing to our film) or (b) they know that the communist Chinese invaded Tibet. So we started from that position and told the story from there. But as I said with a niche subject like this it is very difficult. You want to give people just enough information to engage and inform, but not so much that they get lost. These traditions and schools go back thousands of years so you can end up down a rabbit hole if you are not careful.
What was the process of obtaining archive footage and photographs?
Archive is over half the film, so unsurprisingly it was a big job. For footage of Hannah we called out to all the people who knew her around the world and asked them to send it in. We even had one of the high lamas from the Karma Kagyu Lineage turn up one day with a stack of super 8mm reels saying he thought we might need it.
For the more global footage, such as Kathmandu in the 60s or Poland in ’81, we worked with an archivist who was amazing. It’s a really time consuming process that people often underestimate. The best part for me was the photos of Hannah. We didn’t want to just scan them in and have them come up on screen. So we printed out a batch at a time, stuck them up on the wall in the office and filmed them with a jib arm and a toy lens. A toy lens is a cheap bad plastic lens, but it gives is a totally organic image.
What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome when making the film?
To be honest, there were so many. It was a five year project with a lot of things going on around it. Documentary making is a marathon if you do it properly and you have to be prepared for that. For me this where intention comes in, we try and instil that in anyone of our team who is thinking about doing a passion project. You have to know why you’re making something so that when you go through the dark night of the soul (and I think everyone does), you keep going.
I’ve never been interested in doing things just because I think they will look amazing or clever. I find it easier to keep going if a project benefits on some level. So to think that we were doing something that would introduce Buddhism and this amazingly inspiring woman to people, and to know that if we didn’t her voice would soon get lost, was a great motivation. There is one quote that kept me going: “Pain is temporary, film is forever.” I think that is especially true with a subject like this. With any luck this will touch people for years to come. In the three and a half years since we finished it, I’ve only seen the love and reach of the film grow.
Find out more and watch the trailer at www.hannahthefilm.com