Paths of the Soul
A 2000+ km "bowing pilgrimage" by a group of Tibetan villagers
A repeated image in the feature documentary Paths of the Souls is that of the film's subjects, a small band of Buddhist pilgrims, dwarfed by the immense scale of the landscape they are slowly making their way though. The setting, magnificent in its stark desolation, is the Tibetan plateau, with ragged mountain peaks distinct against a pale blue sky. The destination of their pilgrimage is Lhasa, some 1200 km distant from their village.
At the head of the procession, two members of the group lead the way on foot, a small brass prayer wheel constantly spinning, each rotation sending a Buddhist prayer into the void. Bringing up the rear a red tractor pulls a simple two-wheeled wagon that contains some supplies: a large, cloth tent and timber poles, a stove, some ground barley to be made into tsampa at mealtime. The remainder of the group make their way along the endless road by "kowtowing": a series of prostrations, each time throwing themselves full-length upon the ground, their bodies protected by heavy leather aprons, their hands protected by wooden blocks. Each evening the group sets up their tent beside the road and gather inside around the stove to eat and pray while trucks and other traffic whizzes past. And the next day it all begins again: day after day in all weather; week after week; month after month.
Paths of the Souls is what might be called a "docudrama": none of the subjects are professional actors, but there are some elements of scripting in the telling of their story: a birth on the road pairs a bit too neatly with the passing of the eldest pilgrim as the band reaches their ultimate destination, Mount Kailash (the subtitles have it as "Mount Kang"). Despite this minimal scripting, Paths of the Souls has a sense of authenticity, and the devotion and determination of the villagers is clear.
You have to give credit to director Zhang Yang, who somehow managed to have his film approved by the Chinese national government, which, as most will know, takes a very dim view of any who would critize their policies on Tibet. It must have been an extremely thin line to walk. I would love to hear the opinions of those who support Tibetan independence: how accurately does Paths of the Souls depict the situation of Tibetan Buddhists in present-day Tibet?
Paths of the Souls screened at the Vancity Theatre on Seymour.