Sunday, July 6, 2008

Movie Review: Amongst White Clouds (2006)

Among the hermits: where cameras never go

Amongst White Clouds is an amazing document of the human adventure revealed not only in it's principle subject, but also in the making of the film.

First-time American director Edward A. Burger went to India in the late 90's to study Buddhism but found a greater connection to China. A book about Buddhist hermits pulled from an Indian monastery library led him north in search of an ancient way of life. Arriving in Beijing, he studied Chinese and began asking around for contacts that could introduce him to a mountain meditator. He ended up in the Zhongnan range of Shaanxi Province, where he lived and practiced for four years with one of these hermit masters. In 2003 he took a small film crew into the mountains to interview half a dozen of these practitioners and document their lives.

What comes across clearly in the interviews is that all of these men and one woman are serious about perfecting themselves, revealing their true natures and escaping from the suffering of mundane reality. What isn't always clear, and what many refuse to discuss, is their motivation for removing themselves from society and monastic communities. Besides footage of fetching water, working in the garden, or working on their huts, there is very little film of actual spiritual practice, no tantric rituals, no sitting zazen, no chanting of mantras. The recluses exhibit a few noticeable differences. Some live alone, while others reside in pairs or small groups. Some have electricity and running water. Others lead sparser lives, for example refusing to accept offerings of food. But still, we don't really get any idea of what kind of practices these hermits engage in – do they meditate most of the day? On what? Do they copy sutras? Recite mantras or the names of the Buddhas?

The most interesting questions are left unasked. How is the daily life of a mountain recluse – which consists in meditating, working around the hut, preparing the day's meals, washing, and perhaps a little study – different from the life of a village lay practitioner? What exactly is “the practice” and why is it necessary to isolate oneself from society in order to do it? Once realized, what then? Is there any obligation to return to society, or is “practice” an excuse to escape from the pressures of living with other people?

Despite the lack of probing questions, this remains a film worth watching for the light it shines on a little documented corner of the human experience.

  • Director: Edward A. Burger
  • Studio: Festival Media
  • DVD Release Date: June 26, 2007
  • Run Time: 86 minutes

Interview with director Edward A. Burger
Official website




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