Home Video Hovel: Monk with a Camera, by Sarah Brinks
If you can’t figure out the subject matter of Monk with a Camera from its title then you aren’t trying hard enough. Monk with a Camera is a delightful ninety minute documentary about a man named Nicky Vreeland who lived a privileged life traveling around Europe and going to private school who eventually became a Buddhist monk and later became the abbot of the Rato monastery in India. Vreeland is a fascinating character and the story of his journey is unique and inspiring.
Monk with a Camera tells the story of Vreeland’s life and what led him to Buddhism and his lifelong relationship with photography. The films tells Vreeland’s life story up to the present using some remarkable photos taken of and by Vreeland. There are also some well done animation sequences that fill in the gaps and highlight elements of the story. Vreeland himself is an incredible charming, soft spoken, educated man whose life choices have been unique and often difficult but fulfilling. He talks at great lengths about what his choices to become a Buddhist monk have meant to him and his family. He doesn’t shy away from the difficult subjects like how hard it was to give up women and the idea of a relationship with one and giving up his photography for a while as he studied.
Many of the other characters in the film are also incredibly charming. Vreeland’s Buddhist teacher and guide, Khyongla Rinpoche, is an adorable old Tibetan man who has given up being a monk but still teaches about Buddhism and is a famous monk in his own right. Rinpoche and Vreeland remain close friends and colleagues. Rinpoche must be in his eighties with hearing aids and a cane, but he as an infectious sense of humor and is a delight every moment he is on screen. He loves toys and animals and loves to laugh. His teachings and insights were heartfelt and delivered in a quiet, unassuming way. The Dalia Lama himself makes several appearances in the film. He is also charming, funny, and eager to laugh. He offers Vreeland the position of abbot at Rato monastery which Vreeland raised the funds to build. At the meeting where Vreeland gets his official blessing as Abbott The Dalia Lama tweaks him on the nose and giggles and is absolutely charming while completely commanding the room. It is fascinating to watch. Richard Gere also makes several appearances in the film He is a friend to The Dalia Lama and Vreeland so he speaks many times about the role Vreeland has and is playing bringing Western attention to the efforts of Tibetan Buddhism and The Dahlia Lama’s eagerness to have that connection between cultures.
Vreeland’s photography is the focal point of the film. He lived all over Europe until he was thirteen and his family moved to New York City. He went off to boarding school in Massachusetts, since he didn’t have much in common with his fellow students he became involved in photography and it became a lifelong habit. After he became a monk and converted to Buddhism he struggled with his relationship to photography, always torn between whether it was a selfish or selfless act. He still struggles with it but he was never able to give it up for long. In the end it is his photography and the profits of an art sale of some of his work that make it possible for Rato Monastery to build a much large campus. His lifelong struggle makes it possible for a new dream to come true and then he becomes abbot of that same monastery.
Vreeland is the grandson of Diana Vreeland who was an editor of Vogue. As a result of his relationship with his grandmother Vreeland grew up as a very snappy dresser and had a very upscale fashion sense, he always wore suits and had polished shoes. The pictures of him from his youth as a handsome well-dressed man are an interesting contrast to the handsome older man we see now in red monks robes and sandals (though his sandals are always polished). Vreeland is an interesting contrast in almost any environment he is in. When he is in the United States he sticks out as a white man with a shaved head and in monks robes. In India at the monastery he sticks out because he is white. However he always looks perfectly comfortable in his skin and has a smile and kind word for everyone he meets.
The one word I could use to describe the film, its subject, and most of its “cast” is charming. I was charmed by the film from start to finish. Whether you care about or believe in Buddhism the film is fascinating to watch because Nicky Vreeland is fascinating. I think everyone would like this film. It is beautifully made and shot by Tina Mascara and Guido Santi. The soundtrack is a perfect complement to the film giving it depth and character. There are a few extras on the DVD including deleted scenes and an interview/podcast done by Vreeland.