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How to Launch an International Film Festival in a Small Buddhist Country

How to Launch an International Film Festival in a Small Buddhist Country

When film producer Ginny Galloway contacted me in November 2014 asking if I was interested in helping to launch the first Bhutan International Film Festival, I had to give it some serious
thought. Bhutan is a long way from Woodstock.

It’s a small, Buddhist, developing country set at the foot of
the Himalayas between India and China, known for its Gross National Happiness and attention to environmental conservation. With only eight pilots in the world skilled enough to fly safely into Bhutan because of its harsh mountainous terrain, Bhutan is not an easy country to get to. Given that Bhutan, a monarchy steeped in tradition, had only introduced television and the Internet to its people in 1999, I figured a film festival would be an entirely new adventure for them.

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Eventually, the idea of launching something entirely new in one
of the most remote, untouched and developing places on the other side of the world, captured my imagination and I agreed to come on board as the official Head Consultant of the festival, with the Woodstock Film Festival as the official Advisor.

A couple of months of intense discussions and development among myself, co-programmer and Emmy award-winning filmmaker Lisa Russell, Ginny and our Bhutanese programming counterparts ensued. It was immediately clear that education and collaboration would be key elements of the festival. As part of that agreement, it was decided that each attending filmmaker would present a workshop in his or her field.

Given the limited budget and the difficulty in communication between the American and Bhutanese programmers, finalizing a program was challenging. In addition to programming, I was also advising and assisting on the festival’s infrastructure, general identity, international publicity and industry support, so I was kept busy until the time finally came to set off on the long trip to Bhutan. I’m not exaggerating when I say that my trip from New York to Bhutan took a couple of days with some “Twilight Zone”-type stops along the way.

Once I arrived, I still had a long trip ahead of me. After the ride along a winding road hugging sheer mountainous
drops onto a river that snaked through rice terraces and ancient temples, I made it from Paro Airport to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, and to the festival’s headquarters at the lovely hotel Norbuling which was to be my home away from home for the next few weeks.

One of the things that struck me as I settled in to work during the days leading up to the start of the festival was the long hours all those young men and women, who came to work for the festival from Thimphu as well as places such as Nepal, India, England and the U.S., were putting in each
night. It was not uncommon for many of them to work at the festival’s office, laptops open, drinking tea with yak milk and sugar cubes until 4 a.m. each morning.

The workload was huge as the festival had many facets: both international and
local music, dance, food, photography and film. The general sense was that everyone working on
the festival was creating something that has never been done before in a land
that had never experienced something like this, not even close. So even if it was imperfect, I knew this would be a magical experience.

“Bhutanese Stretchable Time” was a new term I soon learned to
embrace. No one was in a rush. Everything could wait. No one minded if something
that was to start at 4 p.m. didn’t get started until 6 p.m.  The
Bhutanese would smile, take a walk, drink some tea with yak milk and sugar,
chew Doma (a beetlenut the Bhutanese love to chew all day which has a very “acquired” smell…), talk and talk some more. Soon after I arrived, I affectionately nicknamed the festival “The Last Minute Festival,” as so
often things were arranged, decided or taken care of literally in the very last

Over 100 local participating artists were in attendance,
joined by approximately 100 international artists, hailing from as far as
England, Germany, South Africa, India, the U.S. and elsewhere. They were dancers,
musicians, beatboxers, filmmakers, photographers, inspirational speakers and
other creative visionaries. They all integrated with the artistic community in
Bhutan, teaching dance or music and then performing them, workshopping movies,
photography, pottery and much more.

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Among the international attending filmmakers was documentarian Ondi Timoner, who flew in from L.A. Timoner, whose film “Brand: A Second Coming,”  about Russell Brand, is about to world premiere at SXSW,  showed a few of her films including “We Live in Public,” “Dig!,” “Amanda F***ing Palmer on the Rocks” and “Russell Brands the Bird.” Timoner presented talks that inspired the Bhutanese and international artists alike and like many attendees, developed strong new relationship and potential future collaborations.  

“Bhutan is a perfect place to redefine the traditional film festival, from one in which we come and show our work to an audience, to more of a melting pot – where there is an exchange of culture and ideas, and where new work and film styles can emerge,” Timoner told me. “We saw this happen in the fine arts and music portions of the festival as well. The country is a gem, full of wisdom and values we can all learn from, and they are incredibly open to our artistic expression. I look forward to returning and helping to shape the Bhutan International Arts Festival to fulfill all of its trailblazing potential.”

Another attending filmmaker was Duncan Bridgeman, who flew in from  London. In addition to showing his film “One Giant Leap 2”  and giving a workshop, Bridgeman was given special permission
to shoot things that generally were not permitted to (such as special events with
the Royal family). Bridgman quickly fell
in love with Bhutan and engaged with the local community to a point where he is
now planning to return to Bhutan for an as yet undetermined length of time and make
his next movie there. 

NYC based producer and entertainment attorney Jonathan Gray (who
was definitely one of the tallest people there) attended as well, showing “Words with Gods,” which he executive produced, and presenting a lengthy workshop. 

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“Standing in front of the audience in
Bhutan after the screening of ‘Words With Gods,’ it struck me what a profound privilege it is to be a part
of the independent film community, with the opportunity to share our stories
throughout the world,” Gray told me afterwards.

I too gave a workshop to a number of emerging Bhutanese
filmmakers, talking to them about their individual projects. I was struck by
the subject matters of their films; from the death and spirit of the dog of one
filmmaker (Buddhists believe in reincarnation so the dog’s life was to be depicted
as just one stop in its’ many lives); to an AIDS patient who discovered a
unique way to maintain his health; to an experimental filmmaker who did not
want to follow the typical rules of storytelling and who, when I mentioned that
he should study filmmakers like Jem Cohen, made it clear that he was already familiar with Cohen’s work.

The original plan was to hold the daily workshops and the
first movie each day at one of the Domes that were erected last minute at the
Coronation Park, with evening events to be held at Le Meridien, a 5-star hotel
in the center of town which was the Premiere Sponsor of the festival. Coronation
Park is long and narrow, set between a river on one side and the town’s stadium
on the other, with a large golden Buddha sitting in its center, surrounded by
Lotus flowers. I affectionately called it the “Art Park” as much of the art
related activities were taken place there throughout the ten days of the

However, things changed last minute and the film festival part was moved in its entirety to Le Meridien. Jeff Kantor, technical director of the Woodstock Film Festival, in Bhutan to run the projection, worked for the first few days on setting up the Dome with projection, screen etc., but then he had to take it all down and transfer it to the beautiful Meridien, which, in retrospect, was far more comfortable and convenient than the Dome.

The Bhutanese films, programmed by Bhutanese women
filmmakers, Upasna Dahal and Karma Deki, were of particular interest as they
were so different from their Western counterparts. The film “Kushuthara:
Pattern of Love,” for example was about
the intersection of past and present lives where a couple whose failed marriage
in their former lives meet again in this life in an effort to make up for what
they tragically lost previously. Or “Zero
Waste Bhutan: The Choice is Ours” by Loday Chophel, a humble and spiritual young man who is one
of Bhutan’s most accomplished directors and actors. The film is about a 7th grade student in Bhutan who
is startled by a lecture about plastics in the oceans and takes action to eliminate garbage and plastics in Bhutan.

My time in Bhutan was filled with contradictions. The sight and sounds of the thousands stray
dogs who filled the streets of Thimphu, resting during the day and barking at
night (the story goes that a few years back those dogs were rounded up and
shipped away to the center of Bhutan, a day and a half trip by car, only to return
on their own days later) would follow me as I went to visit ancient temples, or
the largest Buddha in the world, made of bronze and gilded in gold, towering
high above the capital city of Thimphu.

One morning I was at the Sunday vegetable market in Paro looking at the countless baskets of red and green chilies only to be called by the festival’s office and quickly summoned back for an audience with their majesties the Royal King and Queen of Bhutan, back in Thimphu at the Taj Hotel. There, all of us Festival’s artists and principal staff, wearing traditional Bhutanese garb, had the honor to meet members of the Royal Family. His Majesty the King, a handsome and clearly enlightened 35-year-old, much revered by the nation, talked about his 48 days trek across Bhutan and his concern for melting glaciers and climate change in general, while her Majesty the Queen admitted laughingly that she is a fan of “House of Cards.” Since one of the festival’s participants/staff members was Kimberly Skyrme, one of the casting directors of “House of Cards,” I believe a special “House of Cards” present is on its way to the Royal Family.

Ginny Galloway, co-director of the festival, summed things
up following the event: “This
international festival is unique because at its heart, it is about
collaboration and knowledge sharing. Whereas other world class international
festivals are about showcasing artists work, this goes one step further. It is
about bridging cultures through a sharing of artistic disciplines.”

The Festival ended February 22nd and Galloway said that she is still hearing from local artists thanking the festival for the experience and asking about what’s in store for next year. “We are all very
proud to be working together with the local artists to build a strong platform
and economy around the arts, here in Bhutan and abroad,” said Galloway.

As for me, the experience was challenging and yet deeply inspiring. I left Bhutan with my heart and my mind filled to the rim and with
hopes for returning next year. I was so inspired that when it comes to programming this year’s Woodstock Film Festival’s
lineup, don’t be surprised to see Bhutanese films featured. 

Meira Blaustein is the Co-founder/Executive Director/Programmer of the Woodstock Film
Festival (WFF), which was launched in 2000 and has quickly become one of the top 50 most
respected and influential film festivals world wide. 
Find out more about the Bhutan International Festival here.

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