“Monk With a Camera” charts the improbable life path of Nicholas “Nicky” Vreeland from blue-blooded jet setter to Dalai Lama-appointed abbot of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Aptly serene in tone, this pleasing documentary by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara (of the excellent “Chris and Don: A Love Story”) has a built-in mix of retro celebrity and spiritual appeal that should serve it well in attracting niche buyers in all formats.
The grandson of fabled tastemaker and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, raised by his equally glamorous parents in globe-trotting high style — at least until they divorced, at which point he and a brother were left more or less to their own devices in Paris — Vreeland became fascinated by photography in his teens. Fortunately, his grandmother was able to secure him an immediate apprenticeship under legendary snapper Irving Penn; he also worked with Richard Avedon before striking out on his own.
Described as being “a very committed dandy” and “a complete gentleman in terms of comportment,” he dated high-profile women and otherwise led an externally glamorous life. But it all left him dissatisfied. He began meditating, then in the late ’70s took the then-shocking step of shaving his head from “some desire to cleanse … to be out there naked, in a sense.”
Of course, that haircut would prove quite convenient when he found his calling, as did the theft of his cameras during an apartment break-in, since a resulting insurance settlement bankrolled several years of studying Buddhism. When Vreeland decided to become a monk, the Dalai Lama himself sent him to a Tibetan refugee settlement just across the Indian border. He stayed there for years as the monastery’s population swelled. He then moved back to the U.S., ghostwriting books for His Holiness, and translating lectures for his other spiritual master, Khylonga Rinpoche.
More recently, he oversaw the building of a badly needed larger monastic complex to replace his old one. When the 2008 economic crash made many promised donations go up in smoke, he re-entered the world of photography, traveling around the globe raising nearly half a million dollars selling his own new images. Most recently, he was installed as the now-completed Rato Monastery’s abbot — the first Westerner in nearly three millennia of Tibetan Buddhist history to achieve such a position.
Clearly regarded with great affection by his mentors (as well as supporters like Richard Gere), Vreeland makes very pleasant company, a man who can namedrop “Jackie” (as in Kennedy Onassis) and “His Holiness” without the least hint of ego. The directors adopt a similarly unpretentious, bemused tone in following him around. Subject’s past adventures are illustrated in animation segments done in a deliberately simple, ’70s TV-cartoon style — an offbeat choice that somehow seems just right.
Attractive lensing and scoring grace a thoughtful tech/design package.