Home Video Hovel: Daughters of Dolma, by Dayne Linford
Most of us have a conception of things outside of ourselves as being rather flat, singular and unchanging. We think of another country and see the stereotypes from old cartoons or action movies, of another religion and see the barest essentials of ancient practice, unchanged over time. One of the most beautiful things about modern film, especially documentary film, is its profound capacity for education, to act, as Roger Ebert famously said, as a machine for making empathy, through elucidation and the chance for others to express themselves. Daughters of Dolma, an Adam Miklos documentary about Tibetan Buddhist nuns, is one such piece.
The film spends nearly equal time in two different nunneries, one a nunnery largely composed of adult women, dedicated to the pursuit of Buddhist dharma but each practicing their religion in their own unique way, and the other mostly composed of young girls, nearly all between five and ten, in the process of negotiating their homesickness, religiousness, and desires as they engage in the training to become nuns. It begins with the former group, rendering a really interesting perspective that seems almost like a backwards version of the Seven Up series.
From the beginning, these nuns are vibrant, well-spoken, interesting women, engaging actively with a changing world. One harbors doubts about her possibilities for happiness as a nun, even as she maintains her faithfulness. She talks about her love for Michael Jackson and horror movies, what she loves about Buddhism, what she regrets. Miklos wisely lets these women drive the film, defining its parameters and interests.
Perhaps most interesting is how the film catches these nuns in the midst of powerful change, the assimilation of Western and wider world culture, particularly an awareness of themselves as women of stature and intellect. A centerpiece of the film is a long debate amongst the nuns concerning their place and power in the larger Buddhist religion in Tibet, especially in relation to monks. Surprisingly, this is not a debate over whether nuns and monks can do the same things – this distinction isn’t as historically prevalent here as it is in Western religions, and the Dalai Lama has ruled that women have equal access as men to the hierarchy of the faith – indeed, the nuns take that for granted. The question before them is whether a nun will do a task differently than a monk, if she will bring something to it that he cannot, or vice versa, or if she is simply his equal for purposes of fulfilling dharma. This question is as relevant in the West as it is in Tibet – what is the place of gender in modern society? Are there innate differences, beyond the obvious, between men and women? Does it matter? These nuns are in a sense recently liberated, told by the leader of their faith, admittedly a male in a patriarchal society, to pursue whatever their ambitions and faithfulness allows, and are just taking those first few steps. But not tentatively. With assurance and power.
The second half of the film focuses on the younger nuns, placed in the nunneries by their parents. We know from the older nuns that they are not bound to this life forever, and some seem clearly to be eager to leave, to take their education – science, history, English, Tibetan, Buddhist theology – and make a life for themselves. But most aren’t there yet, still suffering the pangs of homesickness and doubt. There’s a real sense of companionship, even if it’s sometimes expressed as rote, among the girls, and they seem to stick together and protect each other.
Miklos uses this transition to explore the wider place of nunneries in Tibetan culture. Recent history has rendered Tibetan society in a state of flux, occupied by China, with a steady stream of well-wishing Westerners pouring through its borders. Consequently, seeking both temporal and spiritual assurances, many parents are placing their children in nunneries and monasteries. The place of these nuns and monks is a kind of inbetween, influential, educated, but given a servant’s life, ascetic and self-sacrificing. The ability to make a life for themselves is not open to them, largely of their own will, but also in a way that threatens cultural stagnation in a time of crisis. Each of the nuns, even their parents and the monks, has their own perspective on this, a keen awareness of their sacrifices but also of their boons, what they offer to their society and the unique position they have within which to do so.
Daughters of Dolma is a portrait of Tibetan Buddhist nuns in a time of cultural crisis and radical transformation, their reactions to and upon these world events. It a documentary of the most essential of human rights, self-definition, as expressed in an ancient spiritual practice and culture, undergoing profound change.