The Tibetan community in Zanskar lacks a school of its own. They and important Tibetan leaders believe they have a lot riding on the children being sent to receive religious and secular training. Filmmaker Frederick Marx has documented their struggle to get that education.

Like many isolated peoples in an increasingly interconnected world, Tibetans in Zanskar—a small Tibetan region in Jammu/Kashmir, India—face losing their cultural distinctiveness. This predominately Muslim region, which both India and Pakistan claim, is filled with poor land and small villages usually consisting of a few hundred people. The Indian government school in Zanskar operates irregularly and doesn’t offer training in Tibetan Buddhism.

Two monks originally from the region were sent by the Dalai Lama to see that the children in the region receive Tibetan Buddhist training as well as a secular education. In order to accomplish this goal, they plan to one day build a school. In the meantime, they take the brightest children of Zanskar and lead them on a long arduous journey to a distant Tibetan Buddhist school.

Due to a tight budget, the two monks led a group of children on foot to Manali. After walking for days, and just needing to hike over one last mountain, the group encounters heavy snow that makes it too dangerous to continue on. Left with no other choice, the monks spent the majority of the remaining funds on bus tickets for the children.

This touching story brings to light the issues of cultural preservation, the balancing act of local needs and national agenda, and the simple desire of parents wanting what is best for their children—education. These are the struggles that the Zanskari people and many other minorities in the region struggle with daily.

The Uighurs of Xinjiang, China, for example, face present day challenges that seemingly mirror that of the Zanskari people. The July protests in Xinjiang magnify the issue of a people struggling to boldly speak out on the needs of the local people, while doing so in the parameters of its national agenda.

Frederick Marx, best known as the producer of Hoop Dreams, has captured this moving yet treacherous journey on film and is aggressively pushing to get their story out. In this US-China Today interview with him, he discusses the challenges of filming in Zanskar and his fondness for the Zanskari people.

How did you get involved in this project?

It began as work for hire. A friend of mine from Chicago by the name of Barry Weiss had met the monks, had been to Zanskar, and had wanted to help them. He was already raising money to help them in The States. Then he had decided that it might be even more helpful to have a documentary about what they were doing. So, Barry reached out to me and that is how it started. I was basically hired to go out there and start a film about the monks.

In your filming process, what has been the hardest part?

Well, there have been a number of difficulties. Three come right to mind. One is just the physical challenges of shooting in Zanskar: the altitude, the dryness, the availability of food. You name it! It is a physical challenge on a number of levels. A second big challenge has been the translation. We shot about eighty hours of footage, and about forty hours of that footage is in Zanskari. Zanskari is a dialect of Tibetan that very few people speak, and even fewer people speak Zanskari and English. So, after … we finished shooting in February of ’05, it took a good part of the next three years to get the footage translated. The third big problem had been fundraising. Especially over the last year of course, with the economy collapsing, it just has presented many challenges.

So, while you were filming, you didn’t really know what was going on? You didn’t have a translator with you, right?

Correct! I never quite knew what everyone [Zankaris] was saying. It took about 3 years to find translators who could do a proper job of translating the footage. So, that was the problem.

What sorts of means do you use to go after funding? I know you came to USC to screen your film. Is this a typical way to raise funds? Or did you have other plans? 

It [a screening] is a very untypical way of funding. I have never done it before. I never screened my film before it was finished. For me, it was basically Plan D in terms of funding for the film.

Plan A was basically to get high profile, large donations from individuals and foundations, and that sort of dried up. Plan B was to take out loans, promising people, once the film was finished; I would make enough money to pay them back 10% interest on their loans. So, I borrowed a certain amount of money, but that dried up last October.

Plan C, never quite got off the ground. The seeds are in place, but I don’t really have the infrastructure to support it. And that is the so-called “crowd-funding” model. We use the internet to reach out to, ideally hundreds of thousands of people, and then we just ask people to contribute $20-50, to try to get 10,000 people to do that. So, the website is there, the donation page is there, but I really don’t have the infrastructure, the technical capacity, and the personnel to really make that happen. Now plan D is to take the film out in its unfinished form and solicit donations.

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You talked about the physical challenges of shooting in Zanskar. What sort of effects did this have on you as a person?

Aside from all of the immediate ways it was affecting me– from altitude sickness, shortness of breadth, and all the physical discomfort aside– I’ll tell you the deeper issue really affecting me was that it was kind of inspiring. These people are such amazing people. They live under such hardships, under such an extreme environment. They not only get by, but they do so with good cheer and a communal sense of cooperation. In fact, they inhabit the values of Buddhism: of kindness and cooperation and caring. This is not a society where there are murderers or rape or domestic violence. At least to my knowledge, there is none. They just don’t have problems like that. So, given how difficult their lives are, it was very inspiring to me to see that that difficulty does not translate into personal aggression, hostility or ego-driven behavior.

As you are filming, at what point do you feel obligated to step in? 

[T]hat is a question that you have to ask yourself many times each day, and come up with a different answer each time. You can’t come up with a kind of a blanket rule and expect to respond to it in the same way all the time.

[An audience member asked why I did not] come up with the $700 to put the kids on the bus [from Zanskar] to begin with. Well, the fact of the matter was that would have changed the reality of what was happening. The monks had this plan to take the children and walk over the mountains with them. And they were going to do it regardless of whether I film them or not. And so, all I did was film what was already going to happen.

To me, it is important to recognize the difference between what is already set in motion and is going to happen, or has already happened, and what hasn’t yet happened that probably would happen if I am not here. And should I impact the difference and make it change by virtue of intervening. Those are tough existential questions that have to be addressed again individually as they arrive.

Now, I will give you one example of how I answered it in the course of filming. We filmed with one family before we left Zanskar, and the monks had come to visit this family to interview them about taking one of their children. And in the course of the filming, it became clear that the family was basically starving to death. They were under extreme duress and they did not have a yak. A yak is kind of essential for each house; at least one. The yak not only potentially provides milk and food, but also dung for fuel, and for them the key thing was plowing. So they had to borrow one or rent one…

When I finally understood what was going on, (it was never easy) … I asked the monks how much does the yak cost? They said $300, and I said tell them I will give them a yak. So, we bought them a yak. That just seemed to me to be the appropriate response to the situation.

I didn’t bring it up at USC because I didn’t think it was necessarily appropriate. It is also a dangerous thing because (it) is a kind of instinctively human response and under certain circumstances can sound like heroism and it’s not. What I am talking about here is something that anybody would have done under similar circumstances. I’m not interested in singing my praises.

Walking through the dangerous Zanskar landscape.

There is one scene where the whole crew is trying to get over the mountain. They realize that the yaks can’t go over, so they decide to take a different route and have to take the van. Later on, at the end, the parents were able to make it over the pass. What was the big difference? How come the parents were able to make it over?

The difference is the animals, the luggage, and the children. When we tried to get over, we had a lot more luggage. The irony was, if we didn’t have the animals and so many luggages, we could have made it. We would have walked over. But, with the children, the animals and the luggage, we couldn’t. So, when the parents come back, they don’t have any of that. They are just walking themselves. So, even though the snow was probably much deeper when they came back a couple of weeks later, they were just walking, so they made it.

When it came time to rent the van, the monk charged a mother and several girls in order for them to ride as well. It seemed like a subtle form of discrimination. Could you elaborate on that?

What Geshe talks about, is they pay half [of the] price. What Geshe figured out is what it would cost per person to go. What it costs per person, let’s say $40 dollars. Since they were already way over budget, and the young women were never a part of the plan to begin with, they came along on the trek because they were going on a pilgrimage. Geshe said fine, you can come with us. But they had to [supply] their own food, and their own needs and whatnot. So the same was true for the bus. He said you are more than welcome to come on the bus, but if it is going to cost $40 a person, rather than just even ask them for the full $40, he asked them for $20. They didn’t have enough money to go at $40, but they could go at $20.

Have you gone back? Have you been in touch with the monks and others?

I haven’t been back since February of ’05. I am going back next week for the first time, but I won’t be going all the way to Zanskar. I haven’t been in touch with the children and the parents at all since we stopped filming. But, I do stay in touch with Dhamchoe and Geshe, the two monks. I stay in touch with them by phone and email. Of course, Zanskar doesn’t have access to either. My hope is that we’ll, once the film is finished in the fall, maybe next summer, be able to go back to Zanskar and screen the film there for the families.

Could you talk a bit about your encounter with the Dalai Lama? Was it the first time you had seen him?

It was the first time I had met him… The monks asked me that question too afterwards; in fact everybody does! The truth of the matter is I revere the Dalai Lama, but at the same time, I was working that day. So, I wasn’t there for my own benefit. I was there to do a job. And that job was–we had maybe 15 minutes with the Dalai Lama. We had tried to get an interview with him for months and never succeeded. We knew that we had to have him in the film, so I finally had my chance and I had 15 minutes to make it work. So I was very, very focused on getting the job done and getting it right. So I was completely consumed with working with my cameraman and making sure we had everything we needed for this scene.

Billy Noiman is an undergraduate senior at the University of Southern California studying Business Administration and East Asian Languages and Cultures. He is also Deputy Editor of US-China Today.

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