VOD film review: The Dalai Lama: Scientist
The Dalai Lama9
Matthew Turner | On 25, May 2020
Director: Dawn Gifford Engle
Cast: Dalai Lama, Laurel Harris, Paul Ekman, Matthieu Rickard, Richard Davidson
Watch The Dalai Lama: Scientist online in the UK: iTunes / Google Play
Directed by Dawn Gifford Engle, this likeable documentary centres on the Dalai Lama’s fascination with science, something that was presumably quite well known by science aficionados, but perhaps not so much by the wider world. As such, it’s an engaging portrait of a particular side of the Dalai Lama that’s both inspiring and revealing.
Although the film isn’t intended to be a biography of the Dalai Lama, Engle gives us a potted precis of his early life that proves illuminating. As a toddler, he was identified as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama by a group of monks, who took him from his family farm and raised him in a monastery. Later, in 1959, he escaped Chinese-occupied Tibet (on horseback) and took refuge in India. Engle then cuts to a present-day interview with the Dalai Lama, who explains that his lifelong love of science stemmed from taking apart his toys and attempting to put them back together again, estimating his success rate at “50/50”.
The majority of the film consists of interviews and previously unseen footage, although Engle also throws in a little animation in the early stages. Structurally, the film is divided into five different branches of science (including cognitive science, neuroscience and quantum physics), so much of the footage comes from the annual science conferences held by the Dalai Lama, in which he invites renowned scientists from different fields to present their most recent findings. The most amusing moment comes when you suddenly realise Richard Gere has been in the audience for one of these, when he leans into shot in the background; it’s oddly refreshing to have the cameraman / director be completely oblivious to the presence of Hollywood glamour.
Each of the science-based segments ends in the same way, with a side-by-side comparison between scientific discoveries and Buddhist teaching, showing considerable overlap in each case. That fascinating aspect of the film is underlined by another of the film’s best moments, when a leading scientist is visibly disappointed because the Dalai Lama already understood the thing he’s just explained; it’s just that science hadn’t proven it yet.
It’s fair to say that the film is a little dry in its presentation and there are moments that are borderline inaccessible for those without a science background. Similarly, Laurel Harris’ oddly pitched narration is frustrating, in that it constantly makes the film seem like a promotional video, a feeling that’s further reinforced by the low production values.
What really makes the film stand out, though, is the Dalai Lama himself. At the age of 85, he’s an utterly charming figure who’s full of surprises, whether it’s his cheeky sense of humour or his remarkably astute questions to the scientists he meets. Above all, his passion and enthusiasm for science is present in every frame and the relationships he forms with the various scientists are genuinely moving.
Ultimately, the film leaves you with the sense that the Dalai Lama’s contribution to science on the world stage is profound and significant, particularly when it comes to his groundbreaking involvement with the Chinese. We can only hope that provisions have been made to ensure his work continues.