Zen There, Done That, by Patrick Felton

28 Apr

Many of the developing frontiers for documentary film in the digital era have focused on a genre known as “special interest.” These documentaries often run the gamut from professional wrestling recaps to fly fishing instructional videos. Somewhere in this mix has emerged what metaphysical documentarian Ray Schmitt has coined “the synergistic documentary.” Schmitt describes these films as cases where the documentarian goes on a physical or spiritual journey of a deeply personal nature, unsure of what he will find in the documentary. The resulting documentaries represent not necessarily the will of the documentarian but the will of the universe.

At the outset, Jon Fitzgerald’s Himalayan travelogue The Highest Pass positions itself as the quintessential synergistic documentary. The film documents young Buddhist yogi and his followers as they travel by motorbike across Northern India into the heart of the southern Himalayans. The path that they chose takes them through The Highest Pass, a dangerous and difficult passageway that poses many challenges, but also presents a mystical call of spiritual enlightenment. Through the course of the journey, each of the drivers seeks to discover new things about their own spirits while also challenging their body to new heights.

Despite this bold and deeply nontraditional premise, the approach taken by Fitzgerald is surprisingly pedestrian. The construction and editing of the film is relatively artless. The narrative structures itself more like a reality TV show than a traditional documentary. The documentary seems to shoe-horn in forced tension between the riders through interviews a la “Amazing Race.”  Indeed, the interviews, camera style, even the music queues all seem to come directly out of the Mark Burnett playbook.

Despite these derisive elements, The Highest Pass occasionally proves for compelling viewing.

In terms of pure spectacle, the film contains an unexpected level of visual splendor engagement. In addition to the primary film crew, pair of bike-mounted cameras provide a “you-are-there” view of the busy urban roads of India, and heighten the drama as the crew ride into the mountains. The natural beauty of the Himalayas cannot be understated. There’s something inherently compelling about the motorcycles driving through stark landscapes and beautiful vistas without any other sign of life for miles and miles.

Also, for pure dramatic power, the film displays the high stakes of the situation with relative ease. Several of the drivers crash along the way with frightening intensity. The viewer gets a sense that the potential for fatality exists at any turn. One particular sequence where the team drives through a closed road that is repeatedly described as an avalanche waiting to happen creates a deeply eerie sense of dread in both the drivers and the viewers. Another sequence when a driver gets altitude sickness reminds the audience of how challenging and potentially crazy what they are doing is.

Also of note is the contribution of 80’s progressive rock icon Jon Anderson on the soundtrack. While most of the original score can feel like castoffs from a Travel Channel series, the vocal and lyric work of the former Yes front man on several of the film’s music queues seems to embody the metaphysical journey the riders are on. Particularly the titular “The Highest Pass”, which plays over the credits, caps off the experience with a spirit of wistful contemplation.

At the heart of the film is the parallel made by the drivers of their physical journey and their spiritual journey. Team leader and yogi guru Anand Mehrotra misses no chance to instill spiritual lessons about the primacy of love over fear when dealing with the admittedly tense and scary circumstances of their trip. Dealing himself with a self-made childhood prophecy of his own death, Anand’s lack of fear in the face of mortality constitutes the film’s most compelling feature. Another poignant moment of the film occurs when the bikers visit an isolated Tibetan monk along their way to The Highest Past who appears to look into their very soul. When she says to them: “You Are In The Land Of Angels” she does so with such authority that neither the audience nor the riders will find themselves in a position to argue.

How viewers feel about this film is likely going to depend on their personal views about Eastern spirituality, and in particular Buddhism. The film seems to exist only to relay the spiritual journey of its participants, and perhaps those with conflicting views about the nature of the soul will find it hard to engage as a result.

Even those who accept the film’s premise will most be likely turned off by the film’s over-calculated structure and editing style. The film never quite knows what to do with its spiritual narrative and, it often feels like the filmmakers could take a page out of Anand’s book of being present in the moment. Too often than not, the film is more interested in the physical stakes of the film than the spiritual evolution of its characters. Thus when the film finally merges the spiritual and physical journeys in its climax beyond The Highest Pass, the catharsis is a anticlimactic.

Even with these obstacles, the participants’ demeanor and portrayal are so earnest that those who do open their mind to the films ideas may leave the theater illuminated, if not transformed.

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