If your mind pictures a Buddhist monastery as a step back in time or as a place of detachment from worldly things, you may be in for a surprise when you see Sing Me a Song from documentary filmmaker Thomas Balmès.
Balmès first visited the monastery in Bhutan ten years ago when making his film Happiness. The beginning of Sing Me a Song revisits the previous film and Peyangki, an eight year old monk, as he anticipates the coming of electricity, TV, and internet to Laya, the last village in Bhutan to get that technology. When the film jumps to the present day, we see rows of young monks reciting prayers, while simultaneously playing on their cellphones. Peyangki, now a young man, is still in the monastery, but he is fascinated by the technology, and especially with connecting with Ugyen, a young woman in the capital city, Thimphu. We’re not entirely sure what Ugyen’s life is like, although it appears that she is a B girl who is contemplating going to Kuwait for work.
In part this is a coming-of-age film as a young monk must come to terms with his calling and his desires. For Peyangki, the monastery has been his home for most of his life. He desired to be there as a child. He dreamed of becoming a lama. Now the distractions of the outside world pull him away from the more spiritual life he has been following. His relationship with Ugyen is another draw away from his life in the monastery. That burgeoning love story is followed.
But the key aspect of the film is the way that consumerism and technology tend to take over our lives. This is clearly evident in Peyangki’s life. His teacher at the monastery is constantly pointing out that he is not making progress. He is told he must quit playing and study. In a spiritual discipline that focuses on detachment, the coming of technology does not seem to be a good thing.
The connection to Balmès’s film Happiness is important. He made that film because the King of Bhutan had deemed the rapid modernization of the country as something that would create more happiness. Bhutan claimed to be the happiest place in the world. Yet, as we watch Peyangki and Ugyen, we don’t sense that the King’s plans have brought them happiness. And in Peyangki’s case, it may have taken away the joys he found earlier in the spiritual life in Laya.
Sing Me a Song is available on Virtual Cinema through local arthouses.
Photos courtesy of Gravitas Ventures and Participant Media