Thursday, October 23, 2014

Margaret Mead ’14: Vultures of Tibet (short)

If ever there was a documentary short that cried out for the IMAX treatment, this would be it. The expansive vistas are truly breathtaking, but this is not merely travelogue. It is a scathing critique of cultural insensitivity and exploitation, shot guerilla style without the sanction of the Chinese authorities. That is usually a promising indicator and Russell O. Bush’s Vultures of Tibet (trailer here) is no exception. Indeed, it is a particularly fitting selection of the American Museum of Natural History’s 2014 Margaret Mead Film Festival, which screens the twenty-one minute documentary this weekend.

The Tibetan “Sky Burial” represents a supreme act of Buddhist charity, in which the body is offered to the great Griffon Vultures, closing the great cycle of life. However, photos and videos of the vultures devouring bodies of the devout have become a crass internet sensation, inspiring a cottage industry of wildly inappropriate tours.

Although Westerners also come to gawk, it is the Chinese sightseers who seem to be particularly invasive. Clearly, there are multiple meanings to the titular vultures, who become a metaphor for a metaphor. Obviously, the Chinese tourists are vulture-like intruders, but they are really manifestations of a wider, more insidious cultural and political exploitation.

For greater perspective, Bush interviews several Tibetans, maintaining the integrity of their commentary, but re-recording their responses with the voices of Tibetan exiles to preserve their anonymity. Like the best Iranian films, much of the credits are simply ascribed to “anonymous,” which says quite a bit about the human rights situation for average Tibetans.

Vultures is a particularly effective film, because it is not overtly political, per se, but the implications are inescapable. It is also quite impressive on a technical level, with considerable credit due to cinematographer Drew Xanthopoulos for the incredible shots he captured. It is a challenging work that ought to strike a nerve with festival patrons. Highly recommended, Vultures of Tibet screens this Saturday (10/25) with Tender (an Australian funerary-themed feature doc), as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival.