Film: The lama behind the drama

What makes a Buddhist monk make a feature film about football? Geoffrey Macnab finds out
Click to follow
KHYENTSE NORBU, "the first Bhutanese feature filmmaker", is sitting in the shade in the garden of a beautiful villa. He is dressed in his monk's robes. Like everybody else in Cannes, he has a movie to sell, but he looks about as incongruous at a film festival as King Kong did in New York. According to the sheaths of paper being dispensed by his publicists, he is the reincarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, a 19th- century religious reformer and saint, "one of the most important lamas in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition today."

Is he really Wangpo? Norbu takes my scepticism with good grace. "Even I have my doubts," he says. "I have a complete belief that I am the reincarnation of my past life, whatever it is - a dog or a bird or a butterfly, it doesn't matter. But to be a reincarnation of that saint - it's hard to believe. That saint was a great master. He was a great poet... judging from what I think and how I am, I think it's very unlikely. Others say I am, but that's how Tibetan society functions. I sometimes become a prisoner of society's expectations."

Norbu was just seven years old when he was formally recognised as Wangpo. He ended up being taken away from his family. Although he was allowed to meet his parents from time to time, he spent most of his childhood in a small temple "where I was educated quite intensively - there was no such thing as Saturday, Sunday or holidays. It was just continuous study."

The Cup is not exactly what you expect from a religious leader who still spends "several months each year in strict meditation retreat". It's a wistful, whimsical yarn about some boys at a Tibetan monastery-in-exile in India who become obsessed with the 1998 World Cup. The lyricism and wry humour rekindle memories of early Bill Forsyth films (minus the girls). Norbu's protagonists are gawky, soccer-obsessed adolescents. It just so happens that they are training to become monks.

Norbu, a handsome 38-year-old, is calm, courteous and disarmingly worldly. As a Buddhist at a film festival, he is, however, on his guard. "Wanting to be praised, not wanting to be criticised, wanting a lot of attention, these are the traps," he suggests. "According to Buddhism, if you fall into these, you become weak." There is a paradox here, one which amuses him. He needs praise and attention to help publicise his movie. If he behaves too discreetly, nobody will pay any attention to The Cup. "In this part of the world, you have to get into the traps," he says, smiling broadly.

Ask Norbu how he came to make a movie about football and he admits that he was never really enthusiastic about the game. "But as I developed the script, I had to watch some football just for experience. I am now, I admit, a football fan, and I compare football to religion... Westerners assume Buddhists are "serene" but when you are religious, you become a kind of fanatic. This is why football and Buddhism as a religion are kind of similar."

In the film, Norbu can't resist showing up the absurdity of the rituals that surround the World Cup. ("Two nations fighting for a ball?" the Abbot looks thoroughly bewildered as he tries to work out the point of the game which has so obsessed his young charges.) The Cup, though, touches on deeper issues than whether France (the Tibetans' adopted team) is going to win the tournament or whether the monks will get their satellite dish up in time to watch the final. Norbu hints at the homesickness and resentment felt by the Tibetans in exile. We hear them grumble about rotten Chinese rice. "I was making an ironical joke about the Chinese serving rice in Tibet," Norbu explains. "There's a big thing about China and rice. Rice symbolises China."

He's wary of sounding too political, however, and begins to talk in riddles when asked what he really feels about the Chinese presence in Tibet. "The Chinese must realise that this is not any more the 1940s," he cautions. "The year 2000 is coming. Information is moving fast... China must learn the lesson that just because it's big, it's not safe or secure."

Norbu, who cites Robert Rodriguez as an inspiration and gets all dewy- eyed at the mention of old masters like Ingmar Bergman and Yasujiro Ozu, is a bit of a movie brat. With The Cup, he wanted to pioneer his own version of no-budget cinema, Himalayas-style.

"I had a very romantic idea that I could make The Cup for $10,000 because I heard El Mariachi was shot for $10,000," he recalls. In the event, the film cost considerably more. He was considering mortgaging his belongings to get it made when British producer Jeremy Thomas (whom he'd met while working on Bertolucci's Little Buddha) read the script in London. Within three days, Thomas had sorted out the financing.

The prospect of directing his first feature didn't faze Norbu in the slightest. "As a religious leader, I'm already a bit of a dictator," he says. "I was quite comfortable to direct in a monastery because the monks were there and are all disciplined. But at the same time, I'm expected to perform religious duties, not direct a film. That was the uncomfortable part."

He acknowledges that some of "the older generation, more conservative" monks were appalled at the idea of The Cup. "They think the film is something to do with sex and violence. I don't blame them because the only films they are exposed to are Hollywood films."

Whatever their feelings, Norbu hopes to carry on directing - albeit on an occasional basis. "I actually don't have much ambition to make films... maybe I'll make four or five, at most seven films in my life. I have my other things to do." Right now, Norbu aims to go on solitary retreat for at least six months. He grins: "It will be good for my ego".

`The Cup' is released 19 November