October 19, 2012 by lunchboxcity
E. Gene Smith was an amazing human being. On that, all who knew him can agree, from the high lamas and scholars who were inspired by his encyclopedic knowledge to the most humble, exiled Tibetans who were moved by his passion for literary preservation. As a non-Buddhist, I was honored that Gene allowed me to tell his story in our feature documentary, Digital Dharma, so that even a secular audience could grasp a complicated but important history.
In 2008, Gene gave me permission to follow him back to India as he set out to deliver, to the main lamas of the four leading Buddhist traditions and the Bon, 12,000 digitized volumes from the 20,000 paper texts that had been salvaged from the devastation of China’s cultural revolution. Digital Dharma is the epic story of one man’s mission to provide free access to the story of a people.
During the next four years, we witnessed unexpected setbacks, from salvaged books ruined by flooding in refugee camps to Tibetan protests during the 2008 Olympics in China, that threatened to undo 20 years of negotiations and progress with the preservationists. Gene faced every challenge with courage and resourcefulness.
The sudden death of E. Gene Smith in December 2010 underscored my urgency to tell Gene’s remarkable story as soon as possible. The week Gene died, he became the lead obituary in world press, such as The New York Times, London’s Daily Telegraph, and The Economist, with leading headlines such as, “The American Lama who Saved Tibetan Literature.” With this feature film, I want viewers to quickly move from asking why to wanting to learn how: how the mission will be accomplished, how it will all turn out, and perhaps even how they, the viewers, might become agents for accomplishing such a purpose in their own lives.
Digital Dharma will premiere at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York on July 25 and run through September 5, with a pre-screening guided exhibition tour of an accompanying exhibition, Illuminated: The Art of Sacred Books. The film has also been selected for Docuweeks, running in LA and NY in August.