American filmmaker finds a way around ‘Buddhism fatigue’

By Mayabhushan Nagvenkar, IANS
Wednesday, November 24, 2010

PANAJI - Done-to-death stereotypes have given rise to ‘Buddhism fatigue’ in the United States, which is a tough challenge in movie making, according to California-based filmmaker Heather Kessinger who has made a film on Buddhist nuns.

“In the Shadow of Buddha”, focusing on the nuns in Buddhism and shot in the highlands of Tibet, is being screened at the Short Film Centre (SFC) of the 41st International Film Festival of India (IFFI) here.

Kessinger told IANS that there was a general disinterest in films on Buddhism in the US, which accentuated the same old stereotype, i.e., “beautiful, soft, open - but not always interesting”.

“This film deals with the subject of nuns in Buddhism - a subject never handled before. I want to see if I can break through to a broader US audience with this attempt,” said Kessinger, who is a still photographer-turned-short-film maker.

“The time I started the project, there were no films - specifically in the West - with women in Buddhism. Westerners, often women, are very interested in Buddhism, but there was no place where one could understand a woman’s perspective and role within the culture,” she said.

The filmmaker added that nuns in Buddhism lived a life unconsciously weighed down by a melancholic irony.

“Many Tibetan Buddhists believe that one cannot attain enlightenment in the body of a woman; so why have these women dedicated their lives to this endeavour?” she asked.

“I hope what people will see is that even though the lives of the elder nuns have been difficult and not equitable to the lives of a monk, they embody completely the Buddhist principles of love and compassion,” she said.

Heather, who won laurels at the San Jose Short Film Festival earlier for her film “Spoken”, said she first stumbled upon the subject of women in Buddhism when she was doing the rounds of still photography exhibitions on Buddhism back home in the US.

“I noticed that at each exhibition there was never a photograph of a woman, yet most of the receptions for the shows were filled with women. I found this odd and, after more investigation, realised that the ideal of Buddhism is always represented by a man (monk),” she said.

Many in the US were not even aware that there were nuns within Buddhism, she added.

“This led me to want to make a film giving these women a voice - their own voice and not a Western interpretation of their experience,” Kessinger explained.

Commenting on the influence of Buddhism on contemporary America, she said more than any other state, California was leaned the most towards the Buddhist way of life.

“Interest in Buddhism in the US does definitely appear to be on the rise. I think people have taken to it because it is not a threatening philosophy. Even His Holiness (the Dalai Lama) has mentioned many times that to begin to understand Buddhism you need not give up your current religion,” she said.

(Mayabhushan Nagvenkar can be contacted at

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