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Karl Marx once said that religion is the opiate of the masses: but as Australians know, it's actually sport. Now, Tibetan Lama Khyenste Norbu has made The Cup, a film that brings religion and sport together. (And Tibet and Australia together in making the film.) On the eve of the film's Australian release (April 20, 2000) the award winning * filmmaker took part in a 'fireside chat' with ANDREW L. URBAN at Popcorn Taxi (April 12, 2000, Valhalla Cinema, Sydney), along with producer Raymond Steiner and cinematographer Paul Warren. This is an edited version of that chat.

ALU: Khyentse, The Cup is - in my view - a subtly political film. Did you mean it to be?
KN: I didn’t have that strong political motivation, but the story is set in an exiled Tibetan monastery, so I almost can't avoid mentioning politics a little bit. And I wanted to tone it down with a little humour.

ALU: But you did in fact make it in secret; can you tell us a bit about that?
KN: Two things, actually: one difficulty was that I am seen as a Buddhist teacher and for many people in that part of the world, they think film is always something to do with sex and violence. (all laugh) I cannot really blame them…because that's the only sort of films they get to see. So when they hear that a Buddhist Lama is making a film in a monastery, they think it's something . . . strange. So that's one reason I wanted to do it 'quietly'. The second reason - and I guess I can now reveal it - is that to get a proper permit to shoot this film in India would take two or three incarnations, probably (all laugh). So we took a chance and smuggled all the equipment in.

ALU: Raymond Steiner, can I ask you what were the challenges from a producer's point of view?
RS: Well, it was more of a challenge for Paul (Warren, cinematographer) here. The gear was lugged across difficult terrain and they got caught in a monsoon - so it all arrived 10 days into the shoot.

ALU: Your insurers must been very sanguine about all that !? (all laugh)
RS: It can all be revealed now (all laugh): it was guerilla film making and we had no insurers.

ALU: How did you meet Khyentse and why did you undertake this film?
RS: I actually met him as an 18 year old student of philosophy and I was doing some children's films in India at the time. Khyentse always had a fascination for photography . . and we stayed friends, and so it was a natural progression.

ALU: The Cup is based on real events - was it something that happened to you that was the trigger?
KN: Actually the desire to make films came to me after seeing films in London by such filmmakers as Satyajit Ray - I thought, I could do something like this and felt inspired by that. From then on there was a strong desire to make a film and I started to write stories. I actually made two not worthwhile to mention short films, with Paul here….. that taught me a lot. That was in 1984 in Australia, and I stayed here for six months.

ALU: Which explains, perhaps, why the crew on The Cup were Australian and the post production was done here. How, if at all, has the making of the film impacted on your community? Have they seen it?
KN: Now some of them have seen it, yes - and now they realise that it makes sense. Because when we shot, the script was in English because we had to raise funds…and also, Tibetans never had the tradition of writing scripts in Tibetan. I mean I can't possibly write KITCHEN - INTERIOR - NIGHT in Tibetan! (all laugh)

ALU: Well then how did you work that with the actors….?
KN: I just told them on the spot, this is the line you have to say and this is your mood. That's all; none of them knew the story. They vaguely knew it was about football and a famous event that happened … football itself is not strange to them. There was an incident three World Cups ago like that in the film . . . when I was in a disciplinary role in the same region and discovered some young monks sneaked out…. and next morning I had to explain to the older monks what football is! They can't understand the concept of 20 nations gathered over there . . about a ball!

ALU: You certainly managed to elicit some terrific performances from your inexperienced cast . . .
KN: I must say, my actors saved my film - a lot (all laugh)!

ALU: Just touching on the cinematography, Paul - it's a naturalistic look . . . but what was the most important thing for you in delivering Khyentse's vision?
PW: The most important thing for me was to know the script intimately. It was written in English but spoken in Tibetan which I don't understand. So the ruling thing was to let the script breathe - to have its time and space. And to find the frames to allow the performances and performers to inhabit that frame. And it's a real functioning monastery; we didn't have the power and back up to dress it - the restrictions were what determined what we had. And I die a thousand deaths every time I see it! (all laugh)

ALU: Well, the film has been very well received critically - it's now about to open in Australia; where else, Raymond?
RS: It's been sold to US and England and all the European countries, Japan . . . and it's in 24th week in Germany already. But it's an arthouse film and in the US they don't like reading subtitles, but it's still doing very well. Everyone has got their money back and they're happy.

ALU: And at that point, let's segue into the next question for Khyentse: what will be your next film?
KN: I don't know . . . I have some vague ideas but nothing firm as yet.

ALU: But there will be one?
KN: Yes….but not necessarily about monastic life.

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Khyentse Norbu



Inspired by real events, The Cup is set in a Tibetan monastery-in-exile in India, which receives two young Tibetan refugee boys (two of the thousands sent by their families out of Tibet to avoid the crushing oppression of China) to be trained and ordained. Before long, the earnest young monks are thrown into the fever of the looming world soccer cup. Young monk Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro) is the mischievous organsising force that leads the soccer-mad monks on a surreptitious midnight pilgrimage to the nearest tv set. Once caught, the monks are in danger of expulsion as the Final nears, unless Orgyen can cook up a scheme - and get the abbot's approval.


* The Cup won the Best Film Award (plus $50,000 cash which has never been paid) at the inaugural (perhaps only) Noosa Film Festival in September 1999.


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