Nobel prize nominee Dawn Engle explores His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s lifelong fascination and appreciation of science and its relationship to Buddhist teachings in The Dalai Lama: Scientist. The documentary begins with an outline of the Dalai Lama’s fascinating origin story, from his birth in a small Tibetan village to his discovery and upbringing as the reincarnation of His Holiness to his exile in India following the Tibetan uprising in 1959. This short biography is illustrated with fascinating vintage camera footage of him as a child and cute, colourful animations of his life as a young monk. In interviews, the Dalai Lama recalls his growing interest in engineering and electricity; often, as a boy, he would take apart his toys to see how they worked and complete the thrilling challenge of putting them back together again.
The majority of the film is either interview footage with the Dalai Lama or archival footage of his various meetings with prominent scientists from as far back as 1987. These conference videos are, on the one hand, a fascinating glimpse into the private world of our greatest thinkers and the most intelligent and leading minds in science, but the discussions are quite dense and Engle over-relies on this footage to the point that it becomes terribly dry. The Dalai Lama and the academics explore mystifying scientific subjects such as cosmology, quantum physics, the nature of our mind through cognitive science/psychology, molecular biology, neuroscience, and genetics. They question the origins of our universe, whether or not multiple universes exist, the complexities of our consciousness, and the nature of humanity.
To the average viewer, the majority of these conversations are far too complex, but they are nonetheless fascinating. Engle creates some handy computer-generated illustrations that, while helpfully making the brainy content a bit digestible, unfortunately resemble a PowerPoint presentation. This stiff, automated aesthetic is worsened by the Siri-like narration. However, the abundance of conference footage makes it clear how the Tibetan leader is inquisitive and thoroughly engaged with the researchers, finding many ways to connect their inquiries to the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy.
The Dalai Lama: Scientist’s focus on highly intellectual discussion may go over the heads of many viewers, making the documentary a particularly niche film that mainly appeals to scientists and academics. Engle takes a meaningful and caring approach to her subject, but occasionally her execution is too robotic. She does not quite have the artistic chops to translate such profound content into something more universally compelling; at times it feels more like a glorified slideshow rather than a film, but she does raise interest in the Dalai Lama himself, “half Buddhist monk, half scientist.” The Dalai Lama: Scientist tackles incredibly intelligent and oftentimes challenging discourse, offering a compelling portrait of a smart, curious figurehead interested in understanding the world around him and bettering his followers. If only American leaders were as invested in scientific knowledge as he was, our world would be a better place.
The Dalai Lama: Scientist will be available to rent on VOD from May 19th
by Caroline Madden
Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Baby It’s You, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian and does social media for Passion River Films. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss.