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Birth of a God: The Dalai Lama (Series)

Distributed by Films for the Humanities and Sciences, PO Box 2053;Princeton, NJ 08543-2053; 800-257-5126
Produced by Kutu Chatterji
Director n/a
VHS, color, Two-part Series, 46 min. each
Religious Studies

Reviewed by Charles J. Greenberg, Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University


The series Birth of a God: The Dalai Lama is a two-part historical documentary about the rise of Tibetan Buddhist culture and succession.

Tibet is at a geographic intersection of several competing cultures. The film series traces a chronological succession of Tibetan rulers, Asian civilization rivalries and alliances, and the rise of rival Tibetan Buddhist sects. The rise of Mongolian Genghis Khan and his successors Kublai and Altan are portrayed as symbiotically intertwined with both Tibetan politics and religion.

The film uses a variety of media styles to present a sense of living history. Most of the visual effects are symbolic and clearly understandable, such as a map going up in flames to represent war (later the flames implode back into the map to represent peace). There seemed to be a lot of repetitive use of simplistic animation and dream-like sequences, such as a red-robed monk floating in the air and slowly spinning in a circle or a Buddhist leader exchanging what appear to be identical ceremonial greetings with Mongol warlords on several different occasions.

Concise and sparse narration and soundtrack are supplemented by recorded interview comments of famous western Buddhist scholars, such as Robert Thurman of Columbia University, Mongolian Scholar Shagdaryn Bir, and Michael Harris, biographer of the current 14th Dalai Lama. Stock film footage and some on-location filming in Tibet and Dharamsala provide a natural backdrop A cooperative group of seemingly amateur native Tibetan actors and actresses lend a sense of ethnic authenticity to historical reenactments of several centuries of religious and political strife.

Documentaries can certainly have a point of view. This is an unapologetic one-sided presentation of the history of Tibetan Buddhist succession, as well as a brief portrait of the currently exiled 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Of greater concern is that the films appear to be at least 10 years out of date, judging by the absence of both the Dalai Lama's 1989 Nobel Peace Prize or the mid-1990's controversy over whether Beijing or Dharamsala identified the next child Panchen Lama successor.

Birth of a God: The Dalai Lama is recommended for audiences in need of an easily understandable chronological orientation to Tibetan history and culture. Educators may want to select and show portions of each tape and skip some of the built-in repetition. Educators should plan to fill in some of the major Tibetan historical events of the last decade.