Judge Joel Pearce wants to hire a film crew to record three years of his life.
The Unwinking Gaze is not three years in the life of the Dalai Lama. It is his life's work in three years.
If Michael Moore has taught us anything about the documentary, it's that audiences no longer expect an accurate portrayal of a subject. We don't need to hear from both sides, and directors of documentaries no longer need to pretend to be non-partisan in order to get respect. As a result, the documentary has exploded in the past few years. We've been getting a steady stream of political documentaries, none of them shy about wearing their allegiances on their sleeves.
One of the things that makes The Unwinking Gaze so interesting is its bold claim of impartiality and fairness. The film crew followed the Dalai Lama for three years, and carefully assembled that footage into a documentary format. This reveals, they claim, a true and honest picture of who he is and what his true goals are. To further ensure fairness, the footage comes unencumbered by narration.
This unusual approach has several results. Ironically, we spend much of the time reminded that there is no such thing as a documentary without opinion. As I teach my high school media students, there is no such thing as ideologically neutral filmmaking. Ever. Even if that's the goal of director Joshua Dugdale and team from the outset, their initial bias will always shine through. After all, the crew sat down at the end of filming for three years, and cut the footage down to just over an hour. Imagine, if you will, that I have been following you around for the last three years with a video camera. I have footage of you at work, alone, at home, with your friends. I would have enough footage to turn you into just about anyone.
All things considered, the crew of The Unwinking Gaze did a decent job of minimizing this problem. We get a sequence at the beginning where the Dalai Lama refuses to have a conversation with his advisors with the cameras on. We get to see him dealing with staunch supporters as well as those who are against him. They seem to be good selections, but it's still so short that we don't come away at the end feeling that we know this man well.
This brings us to the second result of this documentary style. When you aren't trying to say anything, it's not as interesting as if you are trying to say something. Had the film crew, having spent three years closely studying the Dalai Lama in action, shown us what they learned, The Unwinking Gaze would be a much stronger film. As it stands, the documentary is simply a reminder of how ridiculous international politics can be. The Chinese government has been accusing him of being a separatist, even though that hasn't been his official line for decades. Much of the film follows the monks as they wait to have meetings that go nowhere, as we then see the people in Tibet waiting for changes that may never come. Instead of being a biography, The Unwinking Gaze ends up being a chronicle of diplomatic failure. This, as well, is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's not what we're promised on the cover.
The DVD does a fine job of delivering The Unwinking Gaze to the home theatre. Unlike many of its siblings, it is presented in anamorphic widescreen, though the transfer reveals the portable nature of the cameras used to film it. It is watchable, though, and probably looks as good as can be expected. The audio is also limited by the filming conditions, though we get subtitles for segments where the dialogue is unclear. These subtitles are burned in, but a matting has been used to make them as readable as possible. There are some additional interviews presented as extras, which help compensate for the relatively short running time.
The Unwinking Gaze is a fascinating look at the Dalai Lama and the challenging issue of Tibet. It may not, however, be interesting for the reasons that were intended by the filmmakers. Still, it is one of the most challenging and sincere attempts to examine this issue accurately and fairly, and has done a reasonably good job in that regard. There will never be a perfect documentary, but it's good to know that people are still trying.
Only guilty of not being what it wants to be.
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