Sunday, November 23, 2014

“Monk With A Camera”– Movie Review



This weekend, I attended a screening at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center of the new documentary “Monk With A Camera”. 


When a man from a privileged background turns his back on his family’s wealth in order to become a monk, can he find a rewarding life in work that is foreign to most in the western world?


Nicky Vreeland seemed to have the perfect life.  As the grandson of Diana Vreeland, former editor of Vogue Magazine, he developed an acute awareness of fashion; growing up, he turned into something of a fop.  Nicky’s father, Frederick, was a diplomat; as a result, he had a childhood that provided the rare opportunity for him to live in a number of different countries around the world.  Eventually, his family settled down; when they returned to America, they lived in New York and Nicky was sent to a boarding school.  Even though Nicky was around boys his own age, he was still something of an outsider, being unfamiliar with the culture and lacking the frame of reference within which they were raised in this society.

In his adolescence, Nicky was also fortunate in the regard that he had a great many female friends who enjoyed his company.  As far as his career, however, he developed an interest in photography and, thanks in no small part to his grandmother, was able to secure work as a photographer through a connection to Richard Avedon, the renowned fashion photographer whose work frequently appeared in Vogue Magazine.  It would seem that Nicky’s life was all set, except for one thing:  he was restless.  Nicky believed that there was something more to be experienced in life and that’s what set him out to seek a life as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. 

From the late 1970’s, Nicky served as a monk at a monastery located in India; exhibiting an earnest discipline rare among westerners, he soon gained respect by both his peers and superiors alike.  Many years later, when his monastery needed to expand, he sought out his family’s friends to make generous contributions – but when The Great Recession hit in late 2008, they found they were no longer able to honor their pledges.  Needing money with the monastery partially built, he returned to his love of photography; Nicky took pictures of various locations and put them in an exhibit to raise money to complete construction.  Having raised $400,000 to complete the job, The Dalai Lama named him Abbot of the monastery. 


No doubt about it, the story of Nicky Vreeland forsaking his family’s wealth in favor of a substantially more modest and spiritual lifestyle is certainly compelling.  This, of course, begs the quite reasonable question of what in the world Richard Gere has to do with any of this?  Gere, allegedly a devout Buddhist, appears in the film and granted an interview about Vreeland.  Originally, he agreed to appear at one of the screenings to help promote the movie, but subsequently (and mysteriously) withdrew.  Whether that’s because he saw a final cut of the documentary and didn’t care to lend his support to it or because he had a better offer, we’ll never know. 

As a documentary, it is a story well told, with a beginning, middle and end.  How much footage was shot in order to tell this story (and how much was discarded in the editing process), would be interesting to know.  Nevertheless, it is well-structured; we are given a clear understanding of Vreeland’s not-so-humble beginnings as well as his introduction to Buddhism; as he displays a deep commitment to this lifestyle and beliefs, he acquires greater “street-cred” in this community.  Upon showing how he could muster the finances required to complete the monastery and temple, The Dalai Lama meets him at a swank hotel room in Long Beach, California (crashed by Gere) and bestows upon him the title of Abbot in a fitting conclusion to the story. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session between the audience and the film’s co-directors, Tina Mascara, Guido Santi and Vreeland himself.  When asked about Gere’s appearance in the documentary, Mascara said that he was attending a class instructed by The Dalai Lama, who invited him to attend the ceremony where Vreeland was made an Abbot.  She claimed that originally, they did not set out to make a movie about Vreeland himself; rather, their intention was to shoot a documentary about Westerners who became monks – when they kept coming upon Vreeland’s name, they knew that was where there story had to be. 


Monk With a Camera (2014) on IMDb

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