Monday, June 01, 2020

BFF ’20: Kingdom of Archers

There has long been tension between Bhutan and China, due to territorial disputes and the oppression of Buddhists in neighboring occupied Tibet. The two nations still do not maintain formal diplomatic ties, so it would behoove Americans to foster greater understanding and relations with the Himalayan nation. Archery could be one way of doing so. It has long been the national sport of Bhutan, but the adoption of modern equipment and international rules has been a relatively recent development. Robert Hixon Hanson examines the Bhutanese passion for the sport in the documentary Kingdom of Archers, which screens (virtually) as part of the (online) 2020 Brooklyn Film Festival.

For years, Bhutan was nearly as isolated as Shangri-La in Lost Horizon. However, in recent years, the King has approved a wide-ranging modernization program, while trying to maintain Bhutan’s traditional culture and values. Hanson uses a similar framework to explore the current state of Bhutanese archery, but without belaboring the point.

These days, most archers prefer to use western “composite” bows rather than traditional wooden ones. Tournaments also increasingly adhere to international rules, so Bhutanese archers will not be at a disadvantage when competing in international qualifying competitions. In the past, Bhutan has received Olympic invitations in archery, based on the sport’s national significance, but the Bhutanese national team hopes to qualify for upcoming games (if they ever happen again), through merit-based performance.

Most importantly, the Bhutanese really enjoy archery and their enthusiasm is appealing. Most of the interview subjects exhibit a laidback sense of humor that translates well, despite the subtitles. In some ways, Kingdom is like a less dramatic or controversial episode of Real Sports (running an economical seventy-seven minutes). It uses archery in several ways as an interesting window into Bhutanese society, which is matriarchal (evidently, irresponsible men often said to squander their money on archery). However, Hanson never delves too deeply or forces any modern vs. traditional analogies.

It is good to learn more about Bhutan, because it is a natural ally, geographically positioned close to China (arguably our greatest geo-political challenge). It is also a beautiful country, as the stunning backdrops Hanson and cinematographer Zebediah Smith capture can attest (the doc also has a seriously cool one-sheet). Recommended for archery fans and those intrigued by the Himalayan region, Kingdom of Archers screens virtually (for free) during this year’s Brooklyn Film Festival (5/29-6/7).