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Khyentse Norbu premieres his new movie online and it is more than he expected - Kencho Wangdi Bonz

After being rejected by over 30 film festivals, from Sundance to Cannes to Venice to Tokyo to Dharamshala, the Bhutanese lama and filmmaker Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Norbu’s latest movie Pig at the Crossing, made with a motley crew of mostly Bhutanese youths, had its world premiere recently on an online platform where it was watched by more than 10,000 viewers from across the globe.

In Khyentse Norbu’s new movie, a womanizer, while on a viagra delivery chore, dies in a freak accident plunging him into the foggy space of the afterdeath where much of the film unfolds. Told from the unfortunate womaniser’s point of view, it places his misadventure in the larger context of the bardo, if with greater suggestiveness than depth, a Buddhist concept of the intermediate state through which beings pass between the end of one life and the beginning of the next.

If the subject of the movie feels familiar, it’s because it has long been workshopped in Buddhist discourses and mass culture, especially in Vajrayana Buddhism. Khyentse Norbu is, of course, not the first director to make a movie about the afterdeath. The American Jerry Zucker, who made the wildly popular supernatural romance Ghost, for one, beat him by three and a half decade. But Khyentse Norbu, who has not seen Ghost, is the first Vajrayana Buddhist lama to attempt to make a movie about afterdeath and based on a 14th century Buddhist text.

A pivotal film and must-see for every Buddhist, Pig at the Crossing is a tad verbose than his earlier films, but it is still a quaint and quiet place, very much a Khyentse Norbu film, who imbues his scenes with an unsettling thrum of uncertainty throughout the film. His deepest tensions play out in the quietest scenes. The Bhutanese actor, Kuenzang Norbu, 28, who plays the lead character Dolom, is a revelation. He carries the movie on his shoulders and offers a layered and haunting performance as a man who finds out that things in his world are not what they seem and must find a way out.

When the rejections came, Khyentse Norbu, who never had any of his films rejected back-to-back before, did not wallow in a melancholic walk in a cold November rain. He and his team just bit the bullet and moved to Plan B and premiered it online instead, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

The main reason why filmmakers take their films to film festival in the first place is to have their films seen by studio executives and make them a distribution offer. By going online Pig at the Crossing not only netted a pretty penny by comparison but was also watched by a substantially higher number of people more than it could have hoped for if it was premiered at the film festivals. Obviously, the ability of the Internet to transmit digital sounds and images to living rooms and computer screens without reliance on a film studio’s expensive distribution services was a boon.

In this interview, Khyentse Norbu talks about his film and why if you’ve made the Bhutanese dish ema datsi the Nigerians, for instance, will be hard-pressed to be enthusiastic about it.

What went into you decision to premiere Pig at the Crossing online? How was the response? Do you think such platform is the future?

Actually, even before the shooting, I had the idea of releasing it online, in small parts. But then I guess we got the idea of going into festivals. And as you know, when we got rejected, the original idea of premiering online, but this time in one go, became reality. I’m very happy with the response; it’s in fact much more than expected. Whether it is the platform for the future – I guess so, I really can’t tell. It really depends on one’s intention, target audience, the nature of the book, film or whatever art you create. If you are trying to make a state of the art ‘Emadatsi’, the original version, then you know it will be quite difficult to convince Nigerians to flock into this.

You have said Pig at the Crossing is the most Buddhist movie you’ve made yet. Please elaborate.

I guess it has lots of elements about time being relative truth, the concept of continuity, or more strictly, the illusory aspect of the idea of continuity. Then of course, one can’t escape having any Buddhist elements, since it’s very immersed in Buddhist culture in a country like Bhutan.

You have said that nearly 90 percent of your vision for this film has been translated on the screen which is saying a lot, one that only a handful of filmmakers can say. But most people who have watched the film say it’s confusing and the fact that you haven’t used any visual effects to differentiate the dead from the living didn’t help. Was this a conscious cinematic choice?

Probably I myself have, throughout the years, managed to learn a bit about the craft. In the past, I tended to get swayed by people’s opinions and suggestions. But many times, peoples’ suggestions and ideas may be very good on its own but storytelling, and especially film making, is kind of unique that way. Especially since most of my stories are written by myself.

In other words, it’s very much in my head. I have realised that it’s really difficult to ask someone to interpret this. And that could be anything – camera position, size of the lenses or the production design and also how it is being edited. One could say I may have learned a little bit with all the previous films and also I had such an aspiring young and talented team. Because they themselves are not seasoned film makers, I guess I couldn’t afford to be lazy. So probably, I may have therefore put extra effort myself. As for special effects, or forget about special effects, even the lighting – we consciously chose not to use it for several reasons. But I think the budget constraint ironically was actually quite favourable for us. Because I think we end up becoming more diligent and creative. I understand if people feel a little confused, because many times we tried to do it not too much the conventional way. But sometimes it is good to take that kind of conscious risk.

Contributed by

Kencho Wangdi (Bonz)

The writer is the former editor of Kuensel

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