Meeting God

In 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama, Ventura filmmaker Rick Ray chats with the “rock star of peace”

by Matthew Singer

Director Rick Ray did not go to India in 2001 with the intent of making what would become 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama. Initially, he was commissioned by a production company to shoot another of his standard travel documentaries. He agreed to do the job for free because the producer promised him an interview with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet and one of Ray’s longtime idols. The contract even listed a date for the meeting. But when he arrived in India, where the Lama has reigned in exile for more than 40 years, it became apparent that no such meeting was scheduled.

“We had these initial meetings with all the government people and all the schedulers and the drivers, the permit people, and not one of them had a piece of paper or any knowledge that we were supposed to meet the Dalai Lama,” says Ray, 47, from his home in Ventura. “And that’s when I realized this was all a hoax.”

Undeterred, Ray figured he could still make it happen. Three months later, he found himself in a humble monastery in the town of Dharamsala, speaking to the man his followers believe to be the living reincarnation of Buddha. And now, his film about the journey toward that conversation is winning awards and creating a buzz on the independent film festival circuit. 10 Questions represents both the pinnacle of his experience as a self-made anthropologist and a departure for him as a filmmaker.

In his career, Ray has made a dozen travel documentaries on such foreboding locales as Cambodia, Vietnam, Syria and Lebanon, many of which have been licensed by the Travel Channel and the Learning Channel. His mission each time out is to avoid the sanitized, hotel-lobby version of foreign culture. He penetrates the true soul of the regions he visits, to better understand not only the country he is filming but the world at large — and maybe himself, too.

But 10 Questions is something different. As he treks across the Himalayas to meet the Dalai Lama, Ray ventures to monasteries, temples and poor but vibrant villages, trying to figure out what to ask one of the holiest individuals on the planet. Using rare archival footage, he also presents a primer on the tumultuous history of Tibet, which was invaded and practically destroyed by China in the 1950s. Once he sits down with the “rock star of peace,” as Ray refers to him, the film becomes not a biography but a compelling essay on contemporary times. Ray didn’t expect to find the answers to the mysteries of existence, but what he came away with was more than just another documentary.

“I used to think going to India was the culmination of everything because India is sort of the graduate school of travel. If you pass that test, you can go anywhere at anytime,” he says. “But it didn’t occur to me until it happened that the Dalai Lama is beyond that. It’s the graduate school of life.”

As confident as Ray was in his ability to reach the Dalai Lama on his own, a few roadblocks stood in his way. For one, there is no Tibetan embassy. “The first thing that goes through your mind is, ‘Call home and somebody figure out how to get in contact with Richard Gere. We have to go back to America to get official permission.’ That’s my western way of thinking, and that was immediately modified by the circumstances.”

Luckily for Ray, he did have Geetaram, an 80-year-old chain-smoking chauffeur with a penchant for driving too close to the wrong side of the road, who handed Ray a business card the day he arrived in India that simply read: GEETARAM — IN CHARGE. Ray asked him if he knew how to contact the Dalai Lama. He suggested sending a letter — and not by snail mail, either. “I said, ‘You’re kidding. We’re going to e-mail the Dalai Lama?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, I have his e-mail address. I’ve driven many people there.’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, he really is in charge.’”

Within days of mailing the request, Ray was on the phone with the lama’s personal secretary. He would be allowed 45 minutes on a day three months in the future. He was advised to limit his questions to ten, because the Dalai Lama “does tend to talk on and on when you get him started.” Ray began writing everyone he knew for suggestions. “I got a lot of good ideas from friends and colleagues and some real bad ones. People are very naïve. They think he knows the meaning of life and he’s keeping it from all of us. He doesn’t like those kinds of questions because it puts him on a pedestal.”

Ray also heard that His Holiness doesn’t tolerate artificiality. “If he doesn’t feel you’re really being genuine and authentic, he’ll kind of end things. Not to be rude, but just because if he doesn’t feel there’s a feeling of meeting him halfway, he’ll very quickly end his meeting with you,” Ray says. “So with that backdrop, I was always thinking, ‘Oh, boy.’ ”

When he finally found himself inside the lama’s humble monastery in Dharamsala, Ray admits he was a bit nervous. Once the interview began, however, he says all traces of anxiety dissipated. They did not discuss grand philosophical subjects, instead addressing issues pertaining to the world as it is today: the preservation of tradition, the chances of solving the conflicts in the Middle East (this was pre-9/11) and his feelings toward China and the limits of non-violence. The portrait that emerges is not of a flawless, distant deity but of a knowable human being. It shows the Dalai Lama as a person who laughs easily and often, is fascinated with modern technology and, despite being deeply religious, takes the side of science if it contradicts doctrine.

“I never saw any attempt to be superior,” Ray says. “And yet, behind that façade is a man who meditates daily at four in the morning, studies neuroscience and physics, is always improving his knowledge and awareness and also spiritual practice, while at the same time his spirituality tells him to be humble and be accessible. So that’s the best of all worlds. He’s human but he’s also brilliant.”

When Ray returned to America and reviewed his footage, he didn’t think he had a film. It sat on the shelf for three years before his wife, Sharon, who is credited as co-producer, convinced him to give it a second look. He started editing pieces together, weaving in rare clips of the Dalai Lama as a child and anonymously submitted images of Chinese torture camps in Tibet, and adding an original score by composer Peter Kater. The movie began showing last year and has caused a stir among audiences. At the Bend Film Festival in Oregon, a 10 a.m. screening inspired a near-riot for tickets. “There was some very un-Dalai Lama-like behavior going on,” Ray says.

Having now been through the graduate schools of both travel and life, Ray feels he may be done with the documentary medium, at least for now. He wants to direct a comedy next, with actors filling in for the real faces he has made a reputation for filming. He isn’t quite done with the Dalai Lama, though. “We haven’t heard back yet as to what his personal thoughts are about the film, but he could be the last guy to offer a final edit.”

10 Questions for the Falai Lama is screening January 26 at the Marjorie Luke Theater at 4 p.m. and January 31 at the Victoria theater at 9 p.m. www.10questionsforthedalailama.com

Seeing dollar signs

The Price of Paradise shows the high cost of the local housing market

by Stacey Wiebe

It wasn’t long ago that Lisa Snider — film director, writer, producer and all-around “make-it-happen lady” — knew next to nothing about making movies.

All that changed when she was assigned to make a film by her boss, Ed Moses, the former director of the Santa Barbara Department of Housing and Community Development and current executive director of the Ventura Housing Authority.

“I was really Ed Moses’ right hand,” said Snider, who worked with Moses in Santa Barbara and made the move with him to Ventura as his assistant. “If he needed a letter typed, I did it. If he needed a movie made, I did it.”

Moses assigned her the task of making an educational video about the challenges of living in the astronomically high-priced greater Santa Barbara housing market. Snider, an Ojai resident, took the request in stride, producing a film called The Price of Paradise.

In making the film, Snider knew to ask for help from acquaintance and filmmaker Michael Anderson, owner of both Extra Mile Films and Ventura’s Well Polished shoe store. But neither knew that their little “educational video” would take the prize for Best Documentary Feature at the Oxnard Independent Film Festival. Nor did they anticipate that it would ultimately land in the lineup at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. “The documentary being shown on a local network was the best that we hoped for,” Snider said, with a glance at Anderson, when the two met last week in a Ventura coffee shop to discuss the film.

“There were a lot of films in the Oxnard film festival,” Anderson said. “It was really rewarding to know that, of all those, we did it.”

After teaming up with Anderson and his business partner, 20-year-old film student Austen Collins, Snider began scheduling and conducting about 20 interviews with those she said represent the “critical workforce,” people like police, firefighters, teachers and others. They talked to those people who are struggling to deal with the high cost of living in Santa Barbara, a place where, along the coast, the median price for a house is $1.2 million.

Snider also interviewed several Ventura County residents who commute to work in Santa Barbara but cannot afford to live there. The challenges this segment of the population face are several and varied, and include everything from parents spending “quality” family time with their children during lengthy work commutes to the tasks of deciding which cities should serve as the school base for those children, while striving to make ends meet. According to Snider, an estimated 100,000 people will be commuting from Ventura County to Santa Barbara within the next 25 years.

“There is one part of an interview where a man says, ‘It would be nice if my wife’s parents could enjoy their grandchildren here in Santa Barbara and we don’t know how we can do that,’ ” Snider said. “This is a couple who doesn’t have children or a home and don’t know how to make that happen.”

While Snider knew the ins and outs of housing issues, Anderson and Collins knew how to meet the challenge of making a potentially dry subject visually arresting. Shot in a high-quality digital format, the filmmakers use of voiceovers, music and local scenic imagery —among other artistic devices — to breathe life into the film.

“We did a lot of day trips to certain areas in the county to make the cinematography very tip-top,” Anderson said. “We used aerial shots and great music, and great music is so key.”

In addition to the 42-minute documentary, the trio produced a 22-minute cut for those “educational” purposes, and those of the short-attention-span variety. Over the course of about nine months of interviewing, shooting, visually capturing the heart of the story and plenty of editing, the three produced a product they’re proud of.

“It was interesting because I knew nothing about filmmaking and Michael and Austen knew nothing about housing. In the beginning, we just sort of bumbled our way through it,” Snider said. “All in all, it was a nine-month project, and I say it was like birthing a baby.”

The trio bonded as they delved into the subject matter, gleaned new information, tailored the filmmaking process to fit their needs and shared their respective knowledge.

“Our chemistry was really amazing,” Anderson added. “If we had ideas, we listened to each other and were able to bring it all together.”

The long hours and effective communication enabled the three to utilize their unique chemistry to create a documentary of with Snider “national relevance,” according to Snider. “I think it could resonate nationwide because it’s all relative,” Snider said.

The documentary, however enlightening, does not offer solutions to the current difficulties in the housing trend. In true documentary style, the filmmakers presented the reality reflected by their research and are leaving the solutions in the hands of the viewers. “It does grab your heart because you look at these people and it’s not easy,” Anderson said. “Like everyone, they want security. They just want to control their destiny.”