The celebratory tenor heralded by the title of Khashyar Darvich's "Dalai Lama Renaissance" belies what's onscreen.
The celebratory tenor heralded by the title of Khashyar Darvich’s “Dalai Lama Renaissance” belies what’s onscreen. To be sure, His Holiness comes off as a font of wisdom, good humor and Buddhist compassion. But a conference in which “40 of the world’s most innovative thinkers” sought to share ideas with the spiritual leader that might “transform the world” frequently dissolves into egotistical bickering about the confab’s structure. Viewers might wonder if they accomplished anything, even as the pic struggles for an inspirational note. Docu is making its U.S. theatrical premiere at San Francisco’s Roxie Cinema May 23 after several months’ fest travel.The Synthesis Dialogues were founded by three U.S. activists in conjunction with the (now-late) Brother Wayne Teasdale, whose close friendship with the Dalai Lama was instrumental in securing his involvement. How participants got involved, and/or the criteria for their selection, is left unaddressed — a rather significant gap. In any case, their number encompasses a bewildering mix of “experts” in everything from economics to New Age spirituality to social justice to media. (Pic also neglects to mention that the conference recorded here took place some time ago, in 1999.) Many are American, though there’s also a number of nationals from elsewhere around the globe. After an arduous journey from Delhi to the Dalai Lama’s HQ in the North Indian Himalayas, members settle in and almost immediately begin to quibble over the process of small-group discussions the organizers have constructed to encourage the flow of ideas. Fred Alan Wolf and Amit Goswami, two quantum physicists also featured in “What the @$*! Do We (K)now!?” are particularly contentious. Relatives and assistants allowed to come along begin demanding they, too, have a voice in the proceedings. Some invitees insist they need one-on-one face time with the Dalai Lama. So much for group synthesis. The idea was for these evolved brains to pool resources and come up with practical notions for changing a world mired in war, greed, poverty and environmental degradation — which then would be offered to His Holiness for his sage input. A few such proposals are indeed ultimately heard, and his responses are measured, good-humored, and inspiring. He even urges participants to focus on benefiting all mankind, not just his own cause celebre Tibet, when a boycott of Chinese goods is floated. But for the most part, at least as portrayed here, the conference’s ambitious idealism seems quashed by a few nonteam-player personalities. It’s noted that to change the world, one must first be able to change oneself. Still, while some participants perhaps gained a little insight into their own hangups while enjoying a privileged audience with the Dalai Lama, no specific plans for global or local action have emerged. Humanity is no better off than it was before the conference, and the organizers have gotten precious little thanks for their efforts. (Subsequent Synthesis Dialogues, the end-titles mention, have involved notably fewer invitees.) While it’s a mystery why this pic took so long to come together, craftsmanship is adequate if uninspired. Glimpses of India’s own overwhelming poverty and squalor are interspersed to remind us of mankind’s current challenges. One odd, digressive directorial choice is a lengthy highlight montage from a traditional Tibetan opera performed for the visitors. In almost excessively sonorous tones, Harrison Ford narrates, which amounts to little more than reading occasional onscreen historical quotes and explanatory intertitles.