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This film is an exploration of several Tibetan Buddhist rituals, and centers around an initiation in India attended by hundreds of thousands of Himalayan devotees, many of whom arrive after punishing pilgrimages that, in one case, took up to three and a half years. As Cinema this film excels. Herzog places himself in the midst of the throng. The faces he captures tell a thousand stories. Yet the actual stories are few and far between. There is a cool detachment in this film that gives it an anthropological feel. Herzog admitted in a live discussion after the screening that he had little familiarization with Buddhism, and reluctantly took this assignment after several requests only after the Dalai Lama himself personally asked him to do it. There is little to be learned here about the ritual itself, as the film focuses mostly on the attendees. Herzog seems uninterested in the meaning behind the sometimes strange-seeming actions of the devoted monks, and focuses instead on observation. While this is a smart approach for a film-maker on one hand, since any attempt to explain this complicated philosophical system would undoubtably fall short, I was left wanting more. If I can make a somewhat strange metaphor: it was like seeing a documentary on the Superbowl, which focused on Americans traveling from all over the country, standing in long lines, paying large sums of money to get in, drinking beer, shouting and cheering at the field, or shouting at television screens, waving strange banners around, and possibly braving rain, snow or blizzard to see it--without ever really going into what football is. Long shots of haggard faces and people doing "the wave" would be compelling to watch, but wouldn't give a true picture of the event. If you're interested in seeing a fly-on-the-wall observation of a very interesting and different aspect of the human experience, this film succeeds. But if you are interested in understanding the Kalachakra ritual, or learning more about Buddhism, then, like me, you'll be left unsatisfied. Perhaps the film is mistitled. The title, "Wheel of Time", somehow promised something different to me. A more apt title would be something like, "Naked Devotion".
In 2002 Werner Herzog went to India to observe the festival of
Kalachakra, the ritual that takes place every few years to allow
Tibetan Buddhist monks to become ordained. An estimated 500,000
Buddhists attended the initiation at Bodh Gaya, the land where the
Buddha is believed to have gained enlightenment. The resulting
documentary, Wheel of Time, is not a typical Herzog film about manic
eccentrics at odds with nature but an often sublime look at an
endangered culture whose very way of life is threatened. Herzog admits
that he knows little about Buddhism and we do not learn very much about
it in the film, yet as we observe the rituals, the celebrations, and
the devotion of Tibetan Buddhists we learn much about the richness of
their tradition and their strength as a people.
The festival, which lasts ten days, arose out of the desire to create a strong positive bond for inner peace among a large number of people. One notices the almost complete absence of women yet the film ignores it and the narrator makes no comment. The monks begin with chants, music, and mantra recitation to bless the site so that it will be conducive for creating the sand mandala. The magnificently beautiful mandala, which signifies the wheel of time, is carefully constructed at the start of the festival using fourteen different tints of colored sand, then dismantled at the end to dramatize the impermanence of all things. Once built, it is kept in a glass case for the duration of the proceedings so that it will not be disturbed. The most striking aspect of the film are the scenes showing the devotion of the participants.
Using two interpreters, Herzog interviews a monk who took three and one-half years to reach the festival while doing prostrations on the 3000-mile journey. The prostrations, which are similar to bowing and touching the ground, serve as a reminder that we cannot reach enlightenment without first dispelling arrogance and the affliction of pride. In this case, the monk has developed lesions on his hand and a wound on his forehead from touching the earth so many times, yet it hasn't dampened his spirit. Other Buddhists are shown trying to do 100,000 prostrations in six weeks in front of the tree under which the Buddha is supposed to have sat. Herzog introduces a moment of humor when he films a young child imitating the adults by doing his own prostrations but not quite getting the hang of it. In a sequence of rare beauty accompanied by transcendent Tibetan music, we see a Buddhist pilgrimage to worship at the foot of 22,000-foot Mount Kailash, a mountain that is considered in Buddhist and Hindu tradition to be the center of the universe.
The Dalai Lama explains wryly, however, that in reality each of us is truly the center of the universe. After waiting in long lines to witness the Dalai Lama conduct the main ceremony, the crowd is shocked into silence when he tells them that he is too ill to conduct the initiation and will have to wait until the next Kalachakra meeting in Graz, Austria in October. The Graz initiation ceremony is much smaller, however, being confined to a convention hall that can only fit 8000 people; however, everyone is grateful to see the Dalai Lama restored to health. In Austria, Herzog interviews a Tibetan monk who has just been released from a Chinese prison after serving a sentence of thirty-seven years for campaigning for a "Free Tibet". His ecstasy in greeting the Dalai Lama is ineffable. During the closing ceremony, the monks dismantle the Mandala, sweeping up the colored sands and the Dalai Lama releases the mixed sand to the river as a means of extending blessings to the world for peace and healing.
Herzog's mellifluous voice lends a measure of serenity to the proceedings and he seems to be a sympathetic observer. While he makes every effort not to be intrusive, he cannot resist staging a scene toward the end of the film in which a bodyguard is seen presiding over an almost empty convention hall to illustrate the Buddhist concept of emptiness. Wheel of Time may not be Herzog's best work but it does contain moments of grace and images of spectacular beauty. Because of the destruction of their heritage, the Tibetans survive today mainly in the refugee camps of India. Any effort that promotes an understanding of their culture is very welcome and Wheel of Time provides us with an insight into an ancient tradition geared toward perfecting humanity through quieting the mind and cultivating compassion.
I just saw Wheel of Time yesterday at its premiere in Toronto, where Herzog was present. As usual, Herzog creates a compelling film: a portrait of a traditional Bhuddist initiation ceremony. Specifically, we are shown the pilgrimmage of hundreds of thousands of people to India and one year later, to a similar ceremony in Austria. On a purely documentary level, this winning film is a fascinating piece, giving insight into this ancient ceremony (including the pilgrimmage itself), as well as showing us the painstaking construction of a large "mandala" made out of colored sand, with a "wheel of time" intricately designed in its center. The interviews with the Dalai Lama were interesting and even humorous. On an artistic level, it is also a winner, as Herzog mixes stylistic poses and environmental landscapes within the structure of the documentary. Of course, Herzog's critics call this self-indulgence, but I strongly disagree. Herzog operates on a subconcious level in most of his films, including his narrative features, and actually succeeds where other "artsy" filmmakers fail miserably. Herzog has produced yet another fascinating masterpiece.
`Wheel of Time' is a very good film, but I admit that it is different from
what I expected from Herzog. He is still very talented, but I doubt if the
subject matter is best suited to him. `Wheel of Time' concerns many things,
including religion, virtue, and faith, which in this case may not be the
best subjects for Herzog. But when `Wheel of Time' deals with some strange
and crazy rituals, political oppression, and rugged landscapes, these parts
of the film are very satisfying.
Some scenes in `Wheel of Time' are magical, especially the scenes which show vast landscapes and people performing strange rituals. Those scenes are Herzogian, I think. Nobody does this kind of thing better than Herzog. If a cinephile watches these scenes, not knowing who shot them, he or she will guess correctly that they were shot by Herzog. These scenes make `Wheel of Time' rise way above television documentaries.
But other scenes are not as magical as I expect from Herzog's films. I think that maybe the religious subject matter of this film doesn't allow Herzog to be as playful in directing as he was in other films. It is very difficult for any filmmaker, including Herzog, to make an interesting documentary about something virtuous like this. It would be much easier to make an interesting film if the film is about `good vs. evil', or about some strange rituals in which people walk on fire and pierce themselves horrifically.
I think Herzog is like a wizard, and one can hardly makes a more magical film than him if the film is about nature-made or man-made madness, brutality, or suffering in life. But because of the subject matter of `Wheel of Time', this film is not my most favorite of Herzog's. I like `Wheel of Time' as much as Herzog's `How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck' (1976) and `The Flying Doctors of East Africa' (1969). I think these three films are very good films, but because the people portrayed in these films are not `very' strange nor `very' crazy, these three films lack some kind of excitement I found in other films by Herzog, especially when compared to Herzog's `Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices' (1995), `My Best Fiend' (1999), `The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner' (1974), and `Land of Silence and Darkness' (1971), which is my most favorite of Herzog's films.
Some parts of Herzog's `Lessons of Darkness' (1992) deal with political madness, and I think Herzog is good at this subject, too. In one scene in `Wheel of Time', a former political prisoner gave an interview about the brutality of the Chinese rule. This scene is very simple. It is just a normal interview. But for me the power of this scene is much more stronger than most scenes in `Wheel of Time'. And it also reminds me of some great scenes in `Lessons of Darkness' in which some people gave their own testimonies to what happened when Saddam invaded Kuwait. I think one thing that makes the scene about the former prisoner stand apart from other scenes in `Wheel of Time' is because this scene talks about `evil forces', while other scenes in `Wheel of Time' are about some kind of virtuous power.
Wheel of Time is a curious documentary crucially because of someone
from the West, like myself, being privy to traditional customs and
ceremonial practices that seem like they could be coming from another
world. But, as one soon learns, this curiosity is strong because it IS
apart of this world, and maybe the truest moment of clarity from the
Dalai Lama himself comes when he states how the universe is really not
owned by one country or apart of one mountain or other, but is in how
an individual conceives it- the universe, the center of it, is in you,
or at least your projection of what it is, which is not something
collective but ultimately is. It's a very wise statement that will keep
me pondering it over for a long time. Likewise, the Kalachakra mandala
becomes like a metaphor for this ideal, of hundreds of thousands of
people coming together for the purpose of- aside from getting priceless
words from the Dalai Lama- being at inner peace with oneself, hence the
By the end of Wheel of Time I didn't know much more about Buddhism than I had going into it, which isn't any real fault on Herzog's end as a filmmaker; it doesn't illuminate and challenge the mind too much like other documentaries of the filmmaker, but it's also nevertheless unique in Herzog's cannon for what he does and doesn't take on with his subject(s). On the one hand, he's endlessly fascinated with ritual, with physical movements, of the masses of people who have gone on this pilgrimage from thousands of miles from all over the continent for this once-in-two-years event (this adds a dosage of climactic irony for what happens there- an 'illness'). It's anthropological to an extent, only it's not one of everyday culture so much as the unheeding devotion to a religion based around enlightenment, not suffering via a messiah or other. On the other hand, Herzog relies this time on just being a guy with a camera, moving around these swarms of people, and this time Herzog relents for the most part to "directing landscapes" as he usually does to just catching people's faces, their body language, and the instruments at their disposal (which are, usually, their own bodies, as in their bowing-type moves to attain a level, and crawling on ones hands and face across land for a purpose). It's actually, for Herzog, kind of conventional, bordering on being something one might expect for television.
But this little note shouldn't discourage one from seeing the film, and whether you're a Buddhist or not it holds its own aura that provides moments almost akin to what the Dalai Lama wants for his pupils and followers. One's even reminded of Woodstock in comparison of a documentary that goes out of its way to show more-so the nature of the people who gather together, and the power of a gathering, than the actual acts themselves. On top of this, Herzog does the occasional focus on an individual (albeit a little sidetracked as it is during the climax) with a political prisoner released from China and allowed to finally "see" the Dalai Lama in person. And for Herzog fans who are always on the prowl for his 'adequate images', there's still a good few to go around here, like when he captures the mountains that the Tibetans go to in masses, or the final images, including one that is as haunting as anything Herzog's shot. It's a peaceful, brisk journey; not a great work, but not an insignificant one either.
Werner Herzog again.
This time he is in his mode of creation more by discovery than invention, and it pays off.
The raw material is striking by itself: vast numbers, ephemeral yearnings, trivial and essential rituals. Devotion in any endeavor is something we are drawn to, and there is plenty for our filmmaker to harvest.
The essential part of this film is Herzog as camera during a gathering in India, where a variety of consecrations are planned. Monks and devotees come, some by difficult and humbling means. 400,000 faces (all attempting calmness) are miraculously organized, assembled to be led by the supreme priest.
We see queues so orderly they could only exist among such beings, but anxious chaos when fighting for tossed goodies: dumplings and candies. We have zealots, order and peace.
Into this sails Herzog. The story is that he had been cajoled into filming the much smaller gathering in Austria. Austria! He was reluctant to do so, and after the film remains firm in his belief that Austrian Buddhists don't make much sense to him. But with this commitment, he traveled to the gathering in a sacred place in India near Nepal.
There he found a focus for his film in one of the rituals. Though it is presented as central to the gathering, it is only so in Herzog's vision. This holds that mysteries can be conveyed visually. The situation needs to support the vision, but the vision is the thing. It is not the symbol, the notation, the token, but the real thing. This is how he thinks of cinema and the way he presents the sand mandala carries this import.
The "Wheel of Time" is one translation of a sand painting made for this type of gathering, as perfected and maintained by one of the groups in Tibet. Mandalas are movies and intended for meditation, as a structure existing between and shared by the mind of insight and the real world of color and structure. There is much to be said of them and cinema, but Herzog only could film this one (and its copy in Austria) as it is being made with colored sand and exhibited as devotees are rushed past it.
He then went to Mount Kailash, Though this is a couple hundred miles away, he merges it seamlessly into the gathering of nearly half a million robed prayers. Here, he is able to make some magnificent images of the mountain, its waterways and the people ritualistically circumnavigating it. This is holiness he understands and the conflation of mountain and mandala works.
As usual, the music adds great power. I believe that henceforth, I will associate that music with this devotion, though there is no relation other than Herzog chose to build his mandala of these sounds, this extract of natural rock and water, and these people. They would not recognize their devotions as shown here. (And some of this is staged.) But for me, it is a window into something more holy than they worship.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
This is the story of the Buddhist initiation ceremonies held in 2002 in
India and in Austria during which elaborate sand mandalas (the Wheel of
Time of the title) were created. In India we see how half a million
pilgrims come from what ever means was at their disposal to come and
see the Dalai Lama and be blessed, while in Austria a few thousand
people attended the ceremonies.
Difficult to adequately explain fully, the film, part document of the events, part meditation on them and on larger ideas. It is a film that beautifully shows how one religion can transcend place and time. It attempts to show us the length to which the pilgrims will go in order to travel down the path to enlightenment. Since this is a trip that is only really traveled deep inside oneself Werner Herzog keeps his camera ever moving over the landscape of the people who are trying to find nirvana. We are forever looking at the faces of those deep in prayer and meditation as if we might be able to find some clue as to what is going on deep with in each persons soul. It becomes a mediation on meditation.
For the most part this film works wonderfully. It manages to give some clue into the very nature of what the ceremonies are all about. We are also drawn into a contemplative and meditative state that seems akin or to approximate those of some of the pilgrims. While certainly not the real thing it is enough to give one a feel for deep thought.
I do have one problem with the film, and its a minor one, in the central section the film seems to wander about too much with some of the pilgrims. Its a personal thing but I was not as enthralled with the journey to the sacred mountain, and I did get a bit tired of prostrating monks. Its a minor thing, but it decreased my enjoyment of the film ever so slightly.
Still this is good film that is a must see for anyone who is interested in Buddhism or the varieties of religious experience. For those who want to see a slice of life thats not in their neighborhood, I also recommend it. 7 out of 10 because the reaction to it will as varied as the audience.
It's interesting to read that Werner Herzog wasn't an expert on
Buddhism when he filmed this. In a way, that's the charm of this film.
Essentially we're given a backstage pass to a Buddhist festival. In
Herzog fashion, he holds the camera longer than most, filming his
subjects looking for any reaction. In a childlike way, it could be very
compelling. Especially since this world is so strange to most
westerners that the audience is like any tourists in a strange land. We
stare a little too long.
My only complaint is he ended the movie in the wrong place. Just because The Dalai Lama couldn't finish the rituals doesn't mean the movie needs to go to another continent to find a happy ending.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Werner Herzog's "Wheel of Time" watches as Tibetan Buddhist monks
embark on a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya, India. Once there, they create
sand mandalas and engage in a series of elaborate rituals.
"Everyone is the centre of their own universe," the Dalai Lama tells Herzog. "Wheel of Time" itself seems to, at times, view its monks as being supremely self-centred and myopic. They engage in rituals, ceaseless prostrations, meditation and contemplation, rituals which Herzog devotes large chunks of his film to recording. The goal, we're told, is to achieve a "blissful acceptance of the illusory nature of self", but when does such self-cultivation become selfish and when does detachment from the self become but a dangerous denial of the self? The typical Buddhist argument is that only when we undergo "enough self-transformation" do we begin to see "larger realities beyond the importance of our own personal well-being". But this tends not to result in saintly bodhisattva, but something else entirely. To someone who sees himself and others as unreal, human suffering and death tends to appear laughably trivial.
"Wheel of Time's" last act delves into the persecution of Tibetans and Buddhists. Elsewhere the impermanence of sand mandalas are likened to the transient nature of all things; humans vanish like dust in the wind. The film climaxes with crowds of Buddhists trampling over one another for gifts, sweets and "blessings", actions which ironically counterpoint the many communal, sacrificial acts routinely committed by the monks.
6/10 Worth one viewing.
Famed German filmmaker Werner Herzog and his crew travel to a Buddhist
pilgrimage site in Bodgaya, India. There they film the believers as
they do the many tasks that they feel lead to greater enlightenment.
The film's title is about a sand drawing or a 'mandala' that is created
for this event.
While my summary is pretty much true of all films, it's especially true of "Wheel of Time". If you have no interest in Buddhism or don't like documentaries that are light on narration and thorough explanations, then you'll probably not enjoy this film. This isn't meant pejoratively--it's just that your interests will really have a lot to do with whether I'd recommend it to you. As a retired history teacher who often taught about world religions, I already had a reasonable understanding of many of the tenants of Buddhism as well as an interest in learning more. But I am NOT the typical person. And, I don't mind the vagueness in the narrative of this film very much--though I would have appreciated it if the film had talked about the basic beliefs of the religion. In other words, before attempting a discussion of the confusion topic of 'mandalas' (something which, it appeared, even the Dalai Lama had a hard time explaining in the film), perhaps it would have been best to discuss other aspects of the religion.
Things of interest to watch for would include the vat of tea (that's a lotta tea!), the great lengths to which some of the followers go to get there, the anticlimactic aspects of the pilgrimage and the later visit to Graz, Austria. Not for all tastes, but worth seeing if it is yours.
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