by Gussie Fauntleroy
In 1997 as Mark Elliott was filming the elaborate enthronement ceremony of a 4-year-old Bhutanese boy seen as the reincarnation of a beloved Tibetan Buddhist teacher, the Crestone-based filmmaker had no idea he would periodically return to document the boy’s experience for the next 15 years. But from both a Buddhist and human perspective, the questions raised as he watched the little boy, surrounded by an admiring crowd of thousands, were too intriguing to ignore.
What would it be like to grow up with the vast expectations and requirements such a child would shoulder? Especially as he got older, how would the yangsi, as the officially recognized reincarnation of a renowned teacher is termed, respond to knowing he was a boy like any other but was expected to grow into his predecessor’s depth of wisdom, knowledge, compassion and grace?
Delighted by the little boy’s naturally charming personality, Mark decided to follow the yangsi’s life up to the age when he would assume the teaching, travel and other responsibilities of his predecessor. The film that resulted, newly released worldwide, draws on the 64-year-old filmmaker’s longtime experience as a student of Tibetan Buddhism. It unfolds in a cinema verité style that offers an absorbing, intimate glimpse into a religious tradition, a culture and a remarkable life. A public screening of Yangsi will take place in Crestone on Nov. 16. (See sidebar for details.)
Off the conventional path
Mark’s own boyhood was marked by expectations of a different sort. Growing up in post-war England and Europe in a conservative family with a lineage of knighted service to the queen, there was the unquestioned assumption of higher education at a venerable English institution, followed by a traditionally acceptable vocation. His great-grandfather, Sir Charles Elliott, served as lieutenant governor of Bengal at the turn of the 20th century. Mark’s father, a British Foreign Service officer, was stationed in Switzerland, Austria and Lebanon during his son’s early years.
Mark remembers a boyhood largely defined by the strictness and loneliness of a London boarding school where he resided from age 8 to 18, punctuated by brief visits home. But there were glimpses into another way of life: his American godfather introduced him to Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer; movies opened up new worlds; and later there would be such counterculture influences as the Beat poets and rock and roll. He also adored a great-aunt, a former 1920s flapper whose idyllic English country home was the site of enjoyable boyhood visits. “She introduced me to an important line of thinking,” he recalls, smiling: “that life could be fun.” Today his motto is, “He who laughs most, learns best.”
Mark began learning the art of filmmaking at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, where he earned a history degree. Back in London, for a time he and a girlfriend ran a successful venture selling leather fringe clothing to musicians including Cat Stevens and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Soon he began meeting filmmakers. Apprenticing with a New York filmmaker, Mark helped produce a series of documentaries on rock and roll stars, earning recognition in London and New York. At the time, he knew nothing about Tibetan Buddhism, but he was about to be pointed in that direction by an unusual source.
On a visit to India with his filmmaking partner in the early 1970s, Mark spent some time at Auroville, home to Mirra Alfassa, known as The Mother, who was leading a community of devotees of the late Indian visionary Sri Aurobindo. He met with The Mother and, as he puts it, “She completely blew my mind. She took me out of space and time and waltzed me around the universe. I was bathed in female love.” She suggested Mark go to Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama asked the two filmmakers to document the Tibetan Buddhist community in exile there.
Almost 20 years of filmmaking followed, including 13 years in Boulder. But eventually the shine began wearing off the process, even though Mark was involved in worthy projects and his work received admiring reviews from such publications as The New York Times. In 1988, Crestone seemed to be a place where he could slip out of the demanding, intensely competitive filmmaking world for a while. “The passion had died. I was ready to give it up for a new chapter,” he recalls. “Crestone let me look at my priorities and revamp to a much saner life than I had before.”
As it turns out, the new chapter was not so new. Almost as soon as he moved to Crestone, Mark was enlisted to help build the Karma Thegsum Tashi Gomang (KTTG) stupa on behalf of the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, the head of a major Tibetan Buddhist lineage. The filmmaker documented the stupa construction in Eye of the Land. That film project and those that followed reinvigorated his interest in his chosen vocation. It also coincided with the rapidly changing world of filmmaking technology, including small, high quality digital cameras and computer-based editing and post-production capabilities.
This confluence of factors has allowed Mark to more easily pursue the kind of filmmaking he enjoys most: producing engaging, intelligent, accessible portraits of extraordinary individuals. “These are people who have a different worldview, unconventional people who have something to say and the courage to go out and say it,” he observes. Among the figures profiled in his acclaimed films over the years are the 16th Karmapa in The Lion’s Roar, Lakota medicine men Henry and Leonard Crow Dog in Crow Dog’s Paradise and famed French high wire walker Philippe Petit in Concert in the Sky. A soon-to-be-released film, Bodhisattva, features the 17th Karmapa, who escaped into exile from Tibet in 2000.
For the filming of Yangsi, Mark received generous access to his subject, Ugyen Tenzin Jigme Lhundrup, recognized as the reincarnation of the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, whom Mark had met several times. The filmmaker and boy immediately hit it off. For Mark, the experience of following the yangsi’s development, play, self-questioning and spiritual training over the years became a reaffirmation of the wisdom and sanity that can be extended and shared through great teachers. “With someone as deeply realized as Khyentse Rinpoche, with such a deep aspiration to be of benefit to all beings—that doesn’t die when the lama dies. He leaves a legacy with his students, and he reincarnates,” Mark reflects. “It’s encouraging because we do live in very dark times. I’m very happy this lineage continues in such a wonderful way as embodied in the yangsi.”
Locally-based professionals who contributed to the film include editors Catherine Hollander and Douglas Beechwood, original music by acclaimed composer and pianist Chuck Lamb and vocalist Theano Lamb, production assistance from Sasha Dorje Meyerowitz and Tatjana Krizmanic, and production and business management by David Elliott, vice president of Crestone Films. “To find such resources in this environment,” Mark says, “Crestone is a magical place.”