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Video: Filmmakers Bring Ancient Tibetan Oral Tradition to Screen

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Sanansaattaja, A Gesar Bard’s Tale, is a Tibetan epic that has been called the greatest literary work of humanity. Standing at more than a million verses, it would fill 120 volumes if written down. This 1,000-year-old tale of the great ruler King Gesar and his times is handed down orally, as are so many beloved American Indian stories.

The filmmaking team of Donagh Coleman and Lharigtso tell the tale of this tale through the lens of Dawa, a Tibetan nomad and yak herder. Though not able to read or write, he received a series of visions at age 13 that gave him the gift of telling this story and has made him into a holy man who has moved on from tending yaks to maintaining and sharing the stories. Coleman and Lharigtso pass this on to us in an 82-minute film that won the Séquences Award for Best Documentary at the Montreal First Peoples Festival.

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In the interview below, Lharigtso speaks of having grown up in this culture and always wanting to share this story in a film. She did so partly to strip the popular conception of Tibet as imbued with mysticism. 

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“A whole lot of people think it's mysterious stuff from Tibet,” she said of the storytelling tradition. “But I don't want to show this side [of it] because I don't want to prove mysterious stuff. I just want to [show the] beautiful poem, beautiful story, beautiful words.”

Oral storytelling has been a bridge between generations on all continents since time immemorial. This Chinese/Finnish film, spoken in Tibetan with English subtitles, will be screened in New York City at MoMA on Wednesday, August 27, 2014, 7:00 p.m. Coleman will be in attendance as well and lead a discussion afterward. More about the movie can be found at the Sanansaattaja website.