Friday, November 21, 2008

Movie Review: The Sacred Sites of the Dalai Lamas: A Pilgrimage to The Oracle Lake, 2007

The Sacred Sites of the Dalai Lamas: A Pilgrimage to The Oracle Lake is a 70 minute collection of home movies of a 2007 trip to Tibet dressed up as a feature documentary. There is some wonderful footage of the Tibetan countryside and numerous sacred sites, including temples, mountains, caves, and lakes. If you've never been to Tibet and know nothing about it, this film might serve as a good visual introduction to the culture and the landscape. The rest of us are left to wonder if the project was simply a clever means for recovering the expenses of what looks to be a rather financially substantial pilgrimage.

The film is narrated in flat, almost dispassionate tones by Steve Dancz, an American music professor, who along with a group of what appears to be around 15 other middle-aged Americans is led across Tibet by American Buddhist teacher Glenn Mullin and Bhutanese religious scholar Khenpo Tashi. Along the way Dancz relates the rather typical tourist reaction of wonder and surprise at being in Tibet, as well as reporting historical and contemporary spiritual claims of supernatural events. Most anyone who has traveled in the region has had similar reactions, and who when visiting a place for only a few hours, or even a few moments, is going to risk insulting the locals by asking if they really believe that walking around a pile of rock reciting a mantra has the power to affect meteorological conditions? Most of us just try to soak up the experience.

But if you are inclined to produce a commercial document of your visit, one that you want to share with the world, one that has the potential to inform and help people understand the relevance of your pilgrimage, it seems such a document is the appropriate occasion for questioning, for examining your experience, for evaluating the meaning of your journey. Perhaps for Dancz there was no need to question, in which case The Sacred Sites of the Dalai Lamas is an example of what you see is what you get. I'd like to think there's more going on, that Dancz was on deadline to finish the film, that perhaps producer Michael Wiese forced him to excise the more interesting observations, and that a more introspective book or film may be forthcoming

For anyone who might be looking for a video document of Tibetan landscapes and scared sites, this is a film worth checking out. For anyone hoping to learn about the Dalai Lamas, about Buddhism, about the meaning of pilgrimage, about the experience of ambition fulfilled, you would do better to look elsewhere.



  1. Thank you for reviewing our film. I was invited by Steve Dancz to join him on the pilgrimage and in the last moment. No crew, no budget, no permissions or permits from the Chinese central government. I did my best to just be there and capture what hapenned. No retakes, no set up scenes. Did you find the film in Kathmandu? I had wondered how long it would take the pirates to get a copy of it? Best wishes, Michael Wiese

  2. Hello, Micahel, and thank you for taking the time to reply to my review and give me (and anyone who might read this) a bit of background on production. I don't know if the context of the film has been discussed elsewhere in production notes or interviews. I generally try to include links to such in my reviews, but given the slow state of data transfer in Nepal it's not always possible to find and publish such items in a timely manner. Which is, incidentally, why you won't find pirates selling any peer-to-peer files. With broadband defined as 100mps, it would take a couple of weeks to download a movie and even then you'd have to have your own power supply, as electricity is available only 18 hours a day (to be cut to 10 per day by February, we hear).

    I think you did a great job with the camera and captured some lovely sights, but it wasn't the visuals I found lacking. One thing I found confusing is that while the script seemed to have been written by Dancz (as it was narrated in his voice and from his perspective), in the credits you are listed as the writer.