Humans are complex, always shifting between agility and frailty at times. To some, the most difficult things seem the simplest to achieve. This is exactly what my next interviewee is all about. He is charming, doesn’t mince words, knows his craft and shares his abundant love for India – and Passage to Tibet. Through Zoom, Mr Sethi, editor-in-chief of G’day India and The Indian Weekly, and I sat down with director, producer and writer Mark Gould on his documentary with ABC, A Pilgrimage into Tibet. In lockdown in Sydney with a glass of red wine, Gould is one of the few who is absolutely loving the lockdown. A swim along Bondi Beach every morning for this seventy-year-old is like taking a walk in the park during these winter months.
An audience with the Dalai Lama Give meaning to the word “Enlightenment” Like meeting Lord Buddha himself.
Similarly, doing films on spirituality is not a ‘calling’ for him; the easiest way for a filmmaker to pay for his travelling bucket list is to make something out of each trip, and that’s the decision he made a decade ago, making films from The Holy Dip to History of Jerusalem.
He explicitly says that he is not a religious person, but there is something transcendent in the human mind. Of all the teachings, he most appreciates Hinduism. Gould personally feels that Buddhism is an offspring of Hinduism, as Christianity is to Judaism. He respects OSHO as a comparative religion scholar but was never a devotee. To Gould, that binary contrast between science and mysticism within the Indian world is what he is attracted to, ever since he first visited India in 1979.
The man that he admires the most in the world is the Dalai Lama: his kindness, his humanity and his smile. Making seven films about the disenfranchised Tibetan community is something Gould loves talking about.
Tibet opened for him when his dear friend married a Sikkimese girl and he was asked to make a film ‘a pig, a chicken and a bag of rice’ which was not only received well, but Gould was asked by Sonya Pemberton (science filmmaker from Melbourne, and Head of Specialist Factual at ABC at that time) to go to Stockholm and shoot a film about Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren, a pair from Perth who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for studying Helicobacter pylori (a bacteria causing stomach ulcers and cancer).
The next years there has been a murder in the Himalayas: Chinese border police fired machine guns, murdering kids crossing the Nangpa La pass. To make Tibet: Murder in the Snow, Gould had to be very involved with the Tibetan refugee community to gain their trust and permission, as well as seeking blessings from the Dalai Lama to make this film. The film won awards all across the world.
While in Himachal Pradesh, he realised that the monks at the Gyuto Monastery in Sidhibhari, near Dharamshala all had Helicobacter pylori. Talk about coincidences of life: two stories collided, making another film (Gut Instinct) for ABC. So, when the Ladakhi Kalachakra was happening, he just took off without any commission to make this film. Later, the ABC offered him an enhanced acquisition deal, giving birth to the Pilgrimage to Kalachakra.
Gould’s involvement with the Tibetan community has lasted over twenty years now. Gould talks about how the Tibetan people are so grateful to India; they even have a ‘Thank-you to India’ ceremony. The Dalai Lama has called Dharamshala his home since 1961.
Gould is vocal about how the Chinese government can rewrite history with lies such as celebrating 70 years since the ‘peaceful takeover’ of Tibet. One and half million people were murdered by the Chinese government in that takeover; Gould has met some of the survivors of this atrocity. So, A Pilgrimage into Tibet is Gould paying tribute to that period of time. In 2019 he formed an eight-person team for the trek, one of them being Sonam Ongmu Denzongpa, the Sikkimese bride of his Gangtok film – her fluency in five languages was key to opening many doors.
They started their journey from Simikot in Nepal’s NW Humla District 200km from the Tibetan border; Gould did this deliberately because he wanted everyone to be acclimatised, as blood cells change at high altitudes. After walking for eight days, they crossed the border into Tibet.
The walk to Mt Kailash starts at 4800m at Darchen, a classic Himalayan frontier town with Chinese soldiers everywhere. It’s not an easy environment; many pilgrims die, turn back or do the parikrama on a horse. Then, walking 25km to a beautiful place called Dirarphuk at around 5200 meters elevation, the terrain becomes tough, cold, dry and dusty. One of the ladies in Gould’s team didn’t come to the Kailash yatra (pilgrimage) and another had to turn back after 6km into the journey, as her lungs started burning.
Climbing 5700 meters to the Drolma La Pass, he saw people prostrating for the parikrama. The principle of this entire yatra is the philosophy of death and rebirth. The ascent is tough as the oxygen level is about 40% compared to the sea level. The descend, a journey of rebirth, takes one past the mythical birthplace of Ganesh, lake Gauri Kund.
Gould is not spiritual, but he felt close to the divinity of creation, greater than any deity.
Next was the Saga Dawa festival at Tarboche – a maidan on the gateway of the parikrama, and it’s a massive festival celebrating the birth of Buddha. Thousands of Tibetans come as if from nowhere.
Gould could see that they were setting up the big pole of prayer flags. If the pole comes up perfectly erect, the coming year will be auspicious.
There was deathly silence when the flagpole crashed to the ground for the first time in recorded history (900 years) … and Gould thought he had missed the shot. What he didn’t realise was that the Chinese government was locking down the entire vicinity; phone and internet signals were down. The military was arresting foreigners, confiscating their memory cards and erasing the filming.
Gould had footage sitting in the GoPro camera in his pocket which he used in the film. Seeing the film, Mr Sethi and I agree with Gould that the moment the pole fell was the birth of COVID. Gould’s life is filled with coincidences. He goes to Kailash to make a film and he gets himself a story which will be remembered for centuries.
A Pilgrimage into Tibet won over 16 major international awards from New York to India, including best director. I recommend watching this film for a brief view into the nomadic life of Tibetans returning to Tibet.
As for Gould, passaging as a pilgrim and tourist while loving the danger, filmmaking, yet being the prudent human being he is, I can only think of Alfred Hitchcock: “Drama is life with the dull bits cuts out.”
By Nandita Chakraborty
Photos by: Murray Cox