2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Ganden: A Joyful Land’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Jampa Legshe in “Ganden: A Joyful Land” (Photo by Ngawang Choephel)

“Ganden: A Joyful Land”

Directed by Ngawang Choephel

Tibetan with subtitles

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 12, 2019.

If you ever wondered about how influential Tibetan Buddhist monestary Ganden survived China’s invasion of Tibet, by relocating to India in 1959, and rebuilding in 1966, this thoughtful documentary explains it all. Ganden is where a young Dalai Lama had his religious origins and his awakening as an activist for world peace. Although the Dalai Lama is not interviewed in the documentary, several Ganden monks who were part of the relocation share their memories of what it was like to be refugees from their native Tibet and to rebuild the monastery in India, a country that welcomed them, with the help of the Dalai Lama.

For the documentary, director Ngawang Choephel (who also narrates the film in a soothing tone) has kept the pacing very deliberate and historically oriented. It’s the kind of film that would be right at home in a museum, a school class on Tibetan Buddhism, or on PBS. In other words, “Ganden: A Joyful Land” might be too slow-paced for those who prefer their documentaries with more flash or quick-cutting editing styles, but just like the monks in the film, tranquility is valued over adrenaline. (Choephel says he began filming Ganden in India in 2011, and about half of the monks interviewed in the movie have since passed away, which adds a certain historical weight as archival footage.)

One of the strongest qualities of the film is the cinematography, which is simply gorgeous. Some of the most compelling and colorful imagery is of monks creating mandala paintings for the Tagtse Dumshoe festival, using sand-like paint. Because the movie has first-person accounts of the monks who founded Ganden in India, their stories are the heart and soul of the film. Many of the monks consistently say that even if they didn’t have enough to eat in the early years of the monastery, life at Ganden was extremely fulfilling for them. One of the monks said that when he went home to visit with his family, he couldn’t wait to get back to the monastery.

Of course, the hardships and suffering they endured are not ignored in the film, and neither is a mention of the high number suicides of the refugee monks and the monks who were still in Tibet, because of their despair over China’s invasion and religious persecution. Despite these depressing but necessary aspects of the film, “Ganden: A Joyful Land” is ultimately an inspiring story of faith, hope, and the will to survive in a world where a peaceful existence is always at risk.