.feature film . observational documentary .tibetan buddhism .meditation .culture .skyburial .nepal
dir. matt blackburn
Tibetan Buddhist search for the meaning of death in an unforgiving Himalayan landscape and expose the core of human nature.
Death is one of the most elusive and taboo concepts. It’s permanence and uncertainty have mystified and confounded humans for millennia. One aspect however, that we know for certain, is one day we will all die.
Tibetan Buddhist have multifaceted explanations, theories and practices around their concept of death and what happens to a consciousness once it collapses into darkness. Thousands of years of meditation, teachings and living in extreme conditions have given way to rich existential theories built on basic human truths.
Blue Kangling is a film that uncovers the collective consciousness of death for Tibetan Buddhist. It is an observational approach revealing individuals who shape, influence and live according to this knowledge. Understanding is established through intimate portraits of commoners, as well as the philosophical and culturally enlightened who offer meaning and insight behind Tibetan Buddhism. Exploring rituals and practices from generations past, we uncover early cultural influences and explanations that answer the existential questions, “Why are they here?” and “Where they will ultimately go?”
Tibetan Buddhist search for the meaning of death in an unforgiving Himalayan landscape and stir compassion by uncovering human truths
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"It's very important to share with the whole world."
His Holiness Sakya Trichen
The 41st gen. Throne holder of the Sakya order of Tibetan Buddhism
"beautifully done and the content is very authentic and gripping."
Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia university
President of the Tibet House New York
Winner, Best Documentary Feature, Spotlight Documentary Film Awards, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, 2020
Winner, Best Documentary Short, InterFaith Film & Music Festival, New York, New York, USA, 2020
Winner, Best Feature Documentary Director, Rancagua, Chile, 2020
Winner, Best First Feature Film by the Director, Rancagua, Chile, 2020
Winner, Best Cinematography in Feature Film, Rancagua, Chile, 2020
Winner, Documentary Film, Virgin Spring Cinefest, Kolkata, India, 2020
Winner, Honorable Mention, Top Shorts, Los Angeles, California, USA, 2020
Winner, Best Documentary, TMFF, London, UK, 2020
Winner, Best Cinematography, Sweden Film Awards, Norrbottens Lan, Sweden, 2020
Winner, Best Feature Documentary, New Cinema, Lisbon, Portugal, 2020
Winner, Best Cinematography, American Golden Picture International Film Festival, Jacksonville, Florida, USA, 2020
Winner, Audience Award for Best Documentary Long, American Golden Picture International Film Festival, Florida, USA, 2020
Lama at Tiri Village
A 14th generation Lama currently resides in the small village of Tiri. The Tiri Lama invites us to a healing ritual he performs for a young villager who has fallen ill. He provides a Buddhist insight to the connection between body and soul in life as well as its transition to death. He explains the process of determining the appropriate burial ceremonies and the ritual obligations of a Lama.
Dr. Khetub Bista
Priest at Dhakmar, Upper Mustang
One of the last priests in the village of Dhakmar who specializes in Tibetan Medicine. He shares this ancient practice, its symbiotic relationship with Buddhism and how to treat the physical and metaphysical in life and death.
Phenclok Tsephen AKA Dara
Village Head at Kagbeni
Currently head of the central Mustang region that includes Kagbeni. Dara also owns and operates Hotel Yak Donald’s. As a village head and business owner, Dara finds conflict in capitalizing on the influx of the western world and struggles to retain the ancient culture and rich tradition that continues to erode from it.
Tsering Gompo Gurung
Lama Chhuksang at Upper Mustang
A practicing Lama for 24 years. Tsering takes a break during a three-day long ritual he’s preforming blessing the foundation for a new house. He explains how he uses the Tripitaka, ancient Buddhist scriptures, as a guide to perform the myriad of duties around burial ceremonies including sky burials.
Ex-Lama Community Elder at Ghami, Upper Mustang
An ex-Lama who was exiled from Tibet after the Chinese take over. Shini provides his perspective on the Buddhist philosophy of honoring life, loss of a loved one and how to escape a Yeti encounter with your life.
Retired Body Breaker at Kagbeni
Retired for 25 years, Wangchok now lives in Kagbeni. He shares the very practical process of body breaking and how he learned by watching those before him. He’s a devote Buddhist who believes his practice of body breaking has secured him a place in heaven.
Thupten Gurung and Mingmar Gurung
Body Breakers at Dhakmar, Upper Mustang
Body breaking is considered extremely holy in the Tibetan Buddhist culture. Thupten and Mingmar explain in grisly detail the necessity and rigors of body breaking, how they assumed these responsibilities and their relationship with these holy birds.
Community Elder at Ghami, Upper Mustang
A community elder provides some insight into life in the region and shares the loss of her husband of 40 years and his water burial.
Villager at Ghami, Upper Mustang
A lifelong villager in Ghami, Sonam underscores the struggles of everyday life and loss through her heart wrenching personal experiences. She clings to the few remaining positive aspects in her life and pushes for a better future for her surviving children.
Community Elder at Ghami, Upper Mustang
A multigenerational matriarch provides a Buddhist viewpoint on generational differences and the wisdom she bestowed to her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. At 68 years of age, Mutu shares wisdom and an intimate perspective on death in the final stages of life.
Aegypius Monachus, Dakinis of Upper Mustang
These giant birds play an integral role in sustaining the philosophical beliefs and rituals of the Tibetan Buddhist. Vultures are sacred, taking part in the most noble burial practice, the Sky Burial. These birds are believed to be Dakinis’, or angels. Summonsed by a Lama to the ceremonial site of the Sky Burial, the Dakinis’ fill their bellies with the bodies of the deceased and carry them to the heavens.
Ehsan and I have some interesting conversations about our shared fascination with human behavior and ideology. Our conversations run the gamut from absurdly dark humor to outlandish theories. Sometimes esoteric, sometimes extreme and sometimes completely made up musings about theoretical physics, existentialism and alternate universes. I read an interview with a mortician that left a lasting impression on funeral practices in western culture. Practices I was familiar with and had witnessed many times was cast into an entirely new light. This epiphany became the catalyst for conversation around death and how the living struggle to compartmentalize and mentally process it. The topic was fascinating, and we started researching the way different cultures process the concept of death from a psychological, spiritual, and ritualistic perspective.
Given some research we had done on Vajrayana Buddhism, we discovered Sky Burials. The duality of beautiful symbolism and the seemingly brutal nature of the practice immediately appealed to us. The practice, taken out of context could easily read like a gruesome headline. But in fact, it’s a highly coveted burial ceremony in Tibetan Buddhism that makes sense upon understand a few fundamental beliefs. Presenting this practice in an unbiased, unpolarizing way that remained true to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and culture was a challenge we embraced.
We set out to make Blue Kangling, an observational documentary film about the Tibetan Buddhists idea of death and the sacred ritual of Sky Burials. Our subject matter experts were not scholars, narrators or personalities but the people who teach, live and carry out these practices every day. The idea was to capture the perspective of a cross section of people who could provide personal experiences that combined, would reveal a greater collective consciousness.
matt blackburn .kagbeni village .upper mustang region
We traveled to the Mustang District, a protected region within Nepal and home to one of the last places Sky Burials are practiced. We spent time with culturally enlightened village heads, reincarnated Lamas, traditional Tibetan Doctors, Body Breakers who perform Sky Burials and many villagers who live according to the teachings and rituals of Tibetan Buddhism. Our conversations about death and burial practices reveal humble and honest human truths and just how one dimensional the western view of Buddhism can be.
Our goal was to create understanding and compassion for a foreign culture through the global reality and emotionally charged topic of death. Trusting our approach to filmmaking Blue Kangling creates an emotional connection, conveys nuances of culture, philosophy and human behavior all while leaving room for interpretation. We hope to ignite conversation and contemplation about mortality in an effort to create a greater appreciation for life.
Our visual approach for Blue Kangling was mostly about what to avoid. Matt’s vision for this for this film as we discussed numerous times has always been to try to keep it true to the aura, we’re about to step in. The challenge for the cinematography was not to idolize a specific element in the seen, not to fall in love with personal taste but to minimize the footprint that we’d leave behind anyway. If there is no light in a room, then there is no light in that room, ‘shoot it as it looks to one who walks in.’ But of course, to maintain the basic aesthetics of a frame while trying to fight with the inner desire to express yourself was quite fun. With this approach we were simply hoping to be close to ‘authentic’ while shooting it with immense respect for the people who trust us with their homes and their pictures.
From the beginning, Matt has been more concerned with listening to the villagers’ stories, rather than trying to tell one. Our ambition was to erase any trace of judgement as filmmakers rather than leaving one, staying true to the people and fighting the urge of describing a widely mis-understood, exotic eastern culture to the western audience, through a 3rd person’s narration. This approach made me put all the old concerns behind what the Buddhists villagers of Upper Mustang area had to say with as few barriers as possible. It blurred the genre in which one categorizes their film, whether it’s cinéma-vérité, neorealism, or a failed attempt of two new filmmakers in not making any judgement!
The camera movement is defined based on individual characters. The levels of authorities and tones dictates the freedom of the camera. Some are shot locked down as we listen to a confidently told scripture or rule, slightly low angle and framed inside the existing borders, sharp angles and rough textures available in their very own homes, using the existing natural light, while the ones who express more doubt, inconsistency or freedom in beliefs brings a more fluid movement and framing to the camera. In the other hand, kids are shown according to their free-spirited impressionable nature, handheld with slight floaty feel, brighter and higher angle. There is no shot used in the edit without a purpose or a new piece of information. The number of acts, subjects and the overall film duration, are all designed based on Tibetan Buddhist beliefs in numerology and astrology closely supervised by local cultural advisor. The cinematic look and feel are achieved through aiming beyond what the industry expectations of an independent film, using 8K digital cinema package with spherical focal lengths closest to the real experience rather than exaggeration. Sound is captured in high fidelity on set, with separate tracks of individual elements in the environment. We stayed with the people.
Together, we cooked, ate, laughed, learnt their games, carried the equipment, drank the local beers, and made a film.
ehsan abbasi .dhakmar village .upper mustang region
.director .writer .creative director .drone pilot
.cinematographer .editor .art director
American Director, Matt Blackburn, residing in Atlanta, Georgia, began his career in advertising as an Art Director in 1996 and graduated to directing his first commercial in London, England in 2012. In 2015 Matt Co-directed Publicolor, a short documentary highlighting a program for at risk youth in Brooklyn, New York. Publicolor was awarded Winner of the 2015 Independent Documentary Awards, Hollywood California and was an official selection for Marché Du Film at the Cannes Film Festival.
Iranian Cinematographer, Ehsan Abbasi, currently resides in Los Angeles, California. Ehsan has an extensive education with degrees in Theoretical and Mathematical Physics, Media Innovations and a Master’s in Arts of Communication. He has been recognized for his academic and professional achievements in both theoretical science and film industry with over 30 national and international awards and exhibitions.
.producer .drone pilot
Nick Mills is a Florida native and Atlanta transplant. Nick served in the United States Marine Corps from 2007 to 2015 before leaving to pursue a degree in marketing. He began his film career working part time as a production assistant in between college semesters before transitioning into a full-time role as a producer. He has worked with Order on multiple televised advertisements and corporate ad films. Chasing the Angel of Death is his first venture into a documentary episodic project.
.line producer .on-set translator
Aashish Shrestha is a Kathmandu, Nepal native. He began his career as a secondary school teacher in the math and science fields before transitioning into the film industry. He has worked on several international documentary projects across Asia in the capacity of a line producer, translator, assistant producer, and associate producer. Aashish has also served in the role of photographer for several of the documentary projects he has worked on. He brings extensive experience Nepali culture and people.
naresh kumar kc
.1st assistant director
Dr. Naresh Kumar KC is a screenwriter, director and producer working in Nepali Film Industry. He started his career in medical profession but later discovered his true passion in film making. He holds bachelor’s degree in Screenwriting & Film Directing from Oscar International College, alongside multiple bachelor’s degrees in English Literature, Mass Communication and Medicine. He received his masters degree in filmmaking from New York Film Academy and USC, School of Cinematic Arts, in Los Angeles, California.
Thomas is a sound recordist based out of Kerala, India. He studied Film at Los Angeles City College and shortly after pursued a career in the film industry as a sound recordist. He has worked on multiple feature films, televised advertisements, corporate ad films, and shorts, although he specializes in documentaries. Thomas brings more than 30 years of experience as a sound recordist across multiple outlets.
.cultural adviser .translator
Tsepak Rigzin received his B.A. and M.A. from Punjab University, B.Ed. from Annamalai University, India, and traditional Buddhist training from the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. He is the author of numerous books and articles on Tibetan Buddhism and he has extensive experience in written and oral translation. Rigzin led the Research and Translation Bureau at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India, producing numerous articles and books, and attending international seminars, workshops and conferences. He held high ranking positions as Rector, Principal and Education Officer with Central Tibetan Schools. He served as translator and spokesperson for Mystical Arts of Tibet, touring with the monks throughout North America and Europe. Rigzin began teaching Tibetan language courses at Emory in 2009. In addition, he served as Scholar in Residence and official translator for Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta. Rigzin has been a professor of Tibetan culture and history at Emory since 2013.
© Order productions, llc.
21 production days
Nepal, Upper Mustang Region
2.35:1 Digital Cinema
RED DSMC2 Epic-W Helium 8K
5K Raw RedWideGamut Log3G10 24fps
3:2 Digital Medium Format
Hasselblad H6D 50-c MF
3FR Raw 50MP 300DPI