February 18-20, 2011

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This two-campus series will feature ethnographic films by young Tibetans from within China and young Burmese filmmakers, a lecture and  film on Buddhism in Burma, and a workshop on documentary film and  development in Asia. Interesting similarities between Burmese and  Tibetan cultures – both of which flourish in strongly Buddhist,  intellectually rich yet economically poor communities living within difficult political boundaries – make this cross-cultural comparison especially compelling. The weekend will feature works of emerging and established Tibetan filmmakers, most of which have never been shown outside China, Burmese students participating in the Yangon Film School, and established Anglo-Burman filmmaker Lindsey Merrison. Films will be followed by discussions with invited Toronto filmmakers. Discussions will also focus on the special value of participatory film projects for  young people living in threatened cultural groups and on the potential of open access and open source tools and practices for these communities. The event venues will be enhanced by a stunning exhibit of images by Plateau Photographers, an open participatory photography project that trains minority students in western China.

Organized by the Buddhist Studies program of the Department for the Study of Religion, this weekend series is sponsored by the Jackman Humanities Institute, the Dr. David Chu Distinguished Leaders Program, the UTSC Tung Lin Kok Yuen (TLKY) Perspectives on Buddhist Thought and Culture Program, the Asian Institute, the East Asia Group, the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, the Cinema Studies Institute, Open Scholarship, Religion in the Public Sphere Initiative and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. This event is a product of the research project, Representing Tibet.

Friday and Saturday events are free and open to the public.

FRIDAY FEB. 18, Noon-9 pm


Location: University of Toronto Scarborough, LL Browne Theatre (12-5 pm) and AA-112 (7-9 pm)

A bus to UTSC will leave from in front of Hart House (Hart House Circle) at 11:15 am, and again at 5:30pm.  It will return to Hart House from UTSC at the end of the day around 9 pm. All are welcome on the bus. For questions, contact aep@utsc.utoronto.ca or 416.208.4769


Introduction: Frances Garrett and Leslie Chan
Lecture: Lindsey Merrison and Eh Mwee

In 2005, Anglo-Burma Director and Producer Lindsey Merrison and seven other experienced filmmakers mounted the first Art of Documentary Filmmaking workshop in Myanmar, during which they trained 12 young Burmese men and women to develop their own skills as documentarians. Lindsey has since mounted a second workshop, The Art of Documentary Editing (2006), and founded the non-profit organization, Yangon Film School (YFS) Association for the Promotion of Young Burmese Film and Video Artists, with the aim of setting up a permanent school in Yangon with a regular curriculum. This series was expanded in 2009 with the release of Stories from Myanmar, which showcases the work of participants of the 2007 Yangon Film School workshops in Myanmar.

A member of the Karen ethnic group, Eh Mwee comes to Toronto for this event from Myanmar. She is a director, cinematographer and editor who joined YFS in 2005, after which she married, returned to Bangkok to finish her Master’s degree in gender studies, returned to Myanmar to have a child, joined Oxfam, and later worked as a freelance evaluator for NGOs. She came back to YFS in 2009, where she rediscovered her passion for filmmaking.


Film: “Stories from Myanmar”

The work of 12 new participants from The Art of Documentary Filmmaking Beginners Workshop 2007, who were given the opportunity to grapple with the technical, artistic and ethical aspects of the genre by producing their own short documentaries on the topic of children in Myanmar. This presentation contains their first film exercises: Stories from the Princess Hotel; their final films: Children in Myanmar; and a short film About the Beginners’ Workshop. In addition, Stories of Change features projects by students of several YFS courses completed during The Art of Documentary Filmmaking Stage Two in 2007. Made for two NGOs, these documentaries portray people from Kachin State, southern Shan State and the Ayeyarwaddy Delta who describe, in their own emotive and surprisingly humorous words, how development organisations are making a real difference to their lives. The body of work bears witness to a growing nucleus of talented young Burmese filmmakers. Their films provide a hitherto unseen window on the lives of ordinary people in Myanmar.


Discussion with Lindsey Merrison, Eh Mwee, and Mark Johnston.




Workshop on participatory media for international development

Weekend participants will join Toronto documentary filmmakers Mark Johnston, Daniel Thomson and Carmen Celestini, plus professors and students in UTSC’s program in new media and international development studies, to discuss the potential of new media practices for  international development. Our conversation will consider the theory and practice of “participatory development,” whether participatory media makes development more open and inclusive, and how new modes of access to and participation in media-making may alter the practice and conceptualization of development.


Dinner break

A bus to UTSC will leave from in front of Hart House (Hart House Circle) at 5:30pm.  It will return to Hart House from UTSC at the end of the day after the program, at around 9 pm. All are welcome on the bus.


Lecture: “Spirits, Ghosts, Goblins and Other Fauna of the Burmese Buddhist Landscape,” Patrick Pranke, University of Louisville

Dr. Pranke holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from the University of Michigan. Currently he serves as an Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Louisville. His specialization is Burmese Buddhism and Burmese popular cults, which he has conducted extensive research on over several years in the Sagaing Hills in Upper Burma. In addition to his experience in Burma, Dr. Pranke has been a teacher and administrator on the University of Wisconsin’s College Year in India Program and Antioch College’s Buddhist Studies Program in north India. Dr. Pranke also maintains a strong academic interest in Hindu folk traditions.

Film: “Friends in High Places”

By Lindsey Merrison (2001)

Whether contending with a deceitful daughter-in-law, forecasting financial prospects for a tea shop, or freeing a husband from government detainment, Friends in High Places reveals the central role of Buddhist nats and spirit mediums in alleviating the day to day burdens of modern Burmese life. “Leprosy isn’t as contagious as people’s problems,” notes one medium, “my clients bring their worries into my home. I don’t need to go out on the street to learn how cruel life can be.” Yet despite their skills in channeling good luck for others, the life stories of the mediums prove to be as poignant as the stories of those who seek their assistance. Just as nats lie somewhere on the spectrum between mortals and the divine, the gay men who serve as primary conduits for the nat spirits are considered to be neither male nor female. Regarded by society with a curious mix of disdain and reverence, the male mediums profiled in this film – ranging from the gentle, melancholy “Lady Silver Wings” to the hard drinking, ego-driven “Mr. Famous” – illustrate the special niche granted to gay men in Burmese society. Exquisite footage accentuates Lindsey Merrison’s keen eye for nuance as she takes the viewer on a journey examining the extremes that define Burmese spirit mediums and their way of life. Deceit and artistry, tragedy and comedy, faith and cynicism – in a country known both as a 2,500 year bastion of Buddhism and more recently for its legacy of political corruption and instability, the world of the nat becomes an analogy for the many unusual juxtapositions within Burma itself.

SATURDAY FEB. 19, Noon-5 pm


Location: JACKMAN HUMANITIES BUILDING, 170 St. George Street, Room 100, downtown Toronto


Introduction by Frances Garrett
Lecture: “Yes They Can: Independent Tibetan Documentary Films in Tibet, A Preliminary Survey,” Françoise Robin

The very existence of independent documentary films in Tibet may sound unlikely or unbelievable for many outsiders. Still, in the last decade, a number of documentary films have been made by Tibetans in Tibet. While this development is too recent to enable us to draw conclusions about their characteristics, a provisional chronology and tentative typology of extant documentaries will be offered, hoping to help us understand the role played by documentary films and documentary filmmakers in Tibet today.

In 2003, Françoise Robin completed a doctoral thesis on Tibetan literature at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO) in Paris, titled “La littérature de fiction d’expression tibétaine au Tibet (RPC) depuis 1950 : sources textuelles anciennes, courants principaux et fonctions dans la société contemporaine tibétaine.” Dr. Robin is a maître de conférence at INALCO. She publishes widely on Tibetan literature and is currently doing research on Tibetan film.

12:45-2:50 Short films by emerging talent from inside China

Film: “Stone Scripture,” Directed by Dondrup Dorje (Tibetan film student)
Response and discussion with Toronto filmmakers Shelly Saywell, Cyrus Sundar Singh and Carmen Celestini.

Film: “Seeds in the Wind,” Directed by Otto Wendekar (Tibetan film student)
Response and discussion with Toronto filmmakers Shelly Saywell, Cyrus Sundar Singh and Carmen Celestini.

2:50-3 Break

3-4:10 “Tantric Yogi”

Film: “Tantric Yogi,” Directed by Dorje Tsering Chenaktsang (50 mins)
Response and discussion with Toronto filmmakers Shelly Saywell, David Cherniak, and Carmen Celestini.

Dorje Tsering Chenaktsang (aka Jangbu) is considered by many Tibet’s greatest living poet. Born in Qinghai province, China, he worked for many years as editor of the Tibetan language literary journal Bod kyi rtsom rig sgyu rtsal [Tibetan art and literature] in Lhasa. In recent years he has been a Visiting Professor of Tibetan Language at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO) in Paris. He has directed the documentaries Tantric Yogi, and Ani Lacham: A Tibetan Nun. He is currently working on a series of documentaries that reflect on social and cultural issues in modern Tibet. The first English translation of his poems and short stories, an anthology of his works titled The Nine-Eyed Agathe, was recently published in the United States. In Tibetan with English subtitles, Tantric Yogi follows a Yogi and his fellow villagers as they travel through challenging territory to reach a rare gathering of thousands of lay tantric practitioners in Eastern Tibet. Narrated by Jim Broadbent.

4:10-6:00 “Summer Pasture”

Film: “Summer Pasture” Directed by Tsering Perlo, Lynn True and Nelson Walker
Response and discussion
with Toronto filmmakers Shelly Saywell, David Cherniak, and Carmen Celestini.

Tsering Perlo founded Rabsal, a local Tibetan NGO that engages Tibetans in filmmaking to preserve and regenerate Tibetan culture and customs. He lives in Dzachukha (Shiqu) County, Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and graduated from the Sichuan Province Tibetan School (SPTI). Perlo has worked with numerous organizations, including the Tibet Fund, The Bridge Fund and the Tibetan & Himalayan Library at the University of Virginia. Perlo is the first recipient of the Machik Fellowship, a program designed to support dynamic Tibetan change-makers working to strengthen their communities and environments. Summer Pasture, his first film, is a feature-length documentary that chronicles one summer with a young family amidst this period of great uncertainty. Locho, his wife Yama, and their infant daughter, nicknamed Jiatomah (“pale chubby girl”), spend the summer months in eastern Tibet’s Zachukha grasslands, an area known as Wu-Zui or “5-Most,” the highest, coldest, poorest, largest, and most remote county in Sichuan Province, China. Summer Pasture takes place at a critical time in Locho and Yama’s lives, as they question their future as nomads. With their pastoral traditions confronting rapid modernization, Locho and Yama must reconcile the challenges that threaten to drastically reshape their existence.

SATURDAY FEB. 19, 7-9 pm

Location: INNIS TOWN HALL, 2 Sussex Avenue, Toronto ON, M5S 1J5

Film: “Lhacham, A Tibetan Nun”

By Dorje Tsering Chenaktsang (China 2007, 27 min, Tibetan with English subtitles)

When she was a child, Lhacham was eager to learn how to read and write. For economic reasons, her parents thought otherwise. She decided to run away to a nunnery in order to receive the education she was dreaming of. Dorje Tsering Chenaktsang follows her during a trip to the nearby town to get her tape recorder fixed. This recorder is her knowledge tool which she uses to learn Tibetan. The film is a tender and poetic portrait of Lhacham’s first journey into town.

Film: Selections from “The Art of Documentary Filmmaking: Women in Myanmar”

By Lindsey Merrison (2005)

At the end of 2005, Anglo-Burmese filmmaker Lindsey Merrison brought together eight tutors well-versed in documentary from Europe and Australia with twelve young Burmese men and women for a three-week workshop entitled “The Art of Documentary Filmmaking.” The venue was a quiet hotel in Myanmar’s capital, Yangon. The Burmese participants had little or no prior knowledge of filming stories from real life. A task that would have been daunting in any country posed a particular challenge in autocratic Myanmar, where documenting reality is a risky undertaking for those on both sides of the camera. All the more remarkable then, that, 21 days later, the participants on this residential course had learned how to handle the equipment, grappled with the artistic and ethical aspects of the genre, and researched, wrote, and filmed four short documentary portraits inspired by the subject of “Women in Myanmar.” The greatest achievement of the event could well have been the impetus and direction it gave to these budding filmmakers, all of whom are already developing new projects. The film features the four final films made by the participants. It also includes the participants’ first film exercise and a video diary chronicling the workshop itself. Together, these works provide a vibrant record of a surprisingly rewarding encounter.

Discussion with filmmakers

SUNDAY FEB. 20, 10 am-2 pm


Location TBA (on the U of T downtown campus) – Pre-registration required.

A series of workshops on documentary filmmaking, bringing together Toronto filmmakers Shelly Saywell, Mark Johnston, David Cherniak, and Carmen Celestini with the visiting Asian filmmakers, to discuss various practical issues relevant to documentary filmmaking, such as how to market documentary films, how to improve storytelling, articulating project proposals, marketing project ideas, finding venues to critique work, etc. Participants must pre-register for this part of the weekend program by emailing Frances Garrett, frances.garrett@utoronto.ca.