For the third part to his Yatra trilogy, which focuses on lost Buddhist traditions of Southeast Asia, John Bush made a pilgrimage into Tibet, bringing with him his video camera and a desire to show an exclusive look at the region's culture on its way out of existence. He traveled throughout the occupied land, visiting temples and festivals, as though he were simply a tourist, but he was able to capture and expose what has been done and what is being done to the area, as no documentary has done before.
Tragically, the end result is in the form of Vajra Sky Over Tibet, a disappointing film that is one part travelogue and one part disorganized montage. It suffers from being too personally involved and also from being impersonal in tone and structure. According to the filmmaker it would suggest a movement to save Tibet, acknowledging that the popular movement to free it has passed, but it is unsuccessful at communicating anything progressive. There is a relative hopelessness about it, and it unfortunately does a bit of disservice to the land and its people.
In wanting to save Tibet, Bush seems to concentrate on its inhabitants' individual rights by pushing for emphasis on religious freedom within the occupation, rather than gaining independence from it. He also urges for the preservation of the memory of Tibet before it is lost completely. The thing is, Vajra Sky Over Tibet is like a museum exhibit, treating its subject like it is already gone, leaving only what the camera was able to store on tape in order to unveil what once was. Bush occasionally shows us the people there, mostly those on pilgrimages themselves, but for the most part the film is motionless, giving the feeling that its images are stuck in time rather than still existing in it. Generally the footage is like a miserable slideshow, presenting object after object and location after location as if they were merely relics of an extinct civilization.
There's nothing worse than having something interesting presented in a way that is boring, and Bush manages to do this with Tibetan Buddhism. Vajra Sky Over Tibet is like the most tedious art history lecture, focusing on close-ups of cultural artifacts, and giving long winded explanations of what they represent. I would compare it to a series of vacation snapshots, except there is no personality to the images or the narration.
Vajra Sky Over Tibet is narrated primarily by the director, whose voice is low and monotonous and has an air of pointlessness. He doesn't sound passionate about what he's saying, even though the subject matter is obviously very dear to him. As he discusses some history of Tibet, he doesn't include any imagery that could be associated with what he's talking about, as he doesn't use archival footage or anything else besides what he has shot on the trip. Unfortunately my train of thought with cinema is more likely to focus on the visual than the audio, and with little more than close-ups of paintings, random shots of flowers and trees and grainy video of the should-be-breathtaking landscape, even the visual had difficulty vying for my attention.
I was shocked with the irony that in Sanskrit, the word "vajra" means "thunderbolt of awakening". I don't think that I have ever seen a film so sleep-inducing as Vajra Sky Over Tibet, and I'm rather proud that I was able to stay alert through its seemingly endless 89 minutes. With a film so disconnected and so randomly organized, which certainly could have been edited in any sort of order and still made little difference, the running time is thankfully short in comparison to what could have been culled from a travel video's worth of footage.
I mean no offense to the Tibetan people when I say I was bored with the film. Their culture and their arts are actually quite beautiful and thankfully this one film hasn't put me off from knowing more about them. It is only Bush who is to blame. Any subject at all could be presented this way and lose the concentration and appreciation of its audience by the end. There are only so many paintings and statues and paintings and statues of Buddhist mythology that can be looked at before becoming temporarily sick of them.
With Vajra Sky Over Tibet, John Bush has possibly made the worst kind of documentary. Though it could be defended as educational or informative, there are surely better forms of media with which to communicate its teachings and its facts. As for the visuals, they aren't engrossing or memorable; and at worst they allow for the Tibetan culture to be represented as anything but interesting. Much of what is seen in the film is significant, just not in the succession of a documentary, or this one anyway.
The film fails because it gives no evidence of what needs saving. Without more of an inside voice from the people (to avoid reprisals there were no interviews conducted) or even a real sense of the present life, there is nothing that gives reasons why we should, only things that seem to give reasons why we should've.