Keeping faith

Zhang Yang on casting and shooting Paths Of The Soul

by Amber Wilkinson

Zhang Yang:
Zhang Yang: "It's true, I have no religious beliefs. However, the shooting, as well as the movie was a process of rediscovering myself and hopefully for the audience, too"
Zhang Yang's Paths Of The Soul (Kang rinpoche) - which screens at Glasgow Film Festival this week - takes us on a pilgrimage alongside a group of Tibetan Buddhists who are making the ardous trek to Lhasa, kow-towing in prayer around every 10 steps. It's a film that considers the dedication of faith and it took considerable commitment on the part of the director and crew as well, as they followed the 'actors' for a year, living with them as they travelled the pilgrimage route. The film is embellished with narrative but firmly based on fact, with Yang going to considerable lengths to find a village of pilgrims who would be willing to take on the additional acting duties.

"I love Tibet and I've been many times," says the director. "When I was there, I encountered some of the pilgrims of the way and it gave me the initial idea that one day I would shoot a film of this pilgrimage. For the Tibetan Buddhist, to make this pilgrimage at least once in your lifetime is a must, so it's natural that they do it. What's difficult was not to motivate the cast to do the pilgrimage but to expalin to them what shooting a movie was and persuade them to participate. So I took a lot of time explaining how shooting the film would be. After the process, shooting the movie was not that difficult. What was difficult, in the beginning, was to find the right village, where all the actors I wanted in the movie were together. I was very lucky to find the village.

Zhang Yang:
Zhang Yang: "It's the right time to shoot this film because of the rapid development of China in recent decades - people's standards of living have risen a lot but the values of people are in huge confusion"
"There are two parts. When the pilgrims do the prostration and they are, indeed, real pilgrims and doing the religious actions. For the other part, when they are speaking the dialogue and in other scenes they were, to some extent actors. I asked them to be as natural as possible and to relax and do what they would do in real life. So for the actors, there was not a clear line between the two."

The accompanying shoot was necessarily lengthy and sometimes tricky but Yang is fittingly philosophical about it.

"For me, it was an enjoyable process despite all the difficulties. Tibet is a high altitude and you can imagine with a camera and heavy machines, you have really serious plateau stress in the beginning. But after the team adapted to it we really did enjoy it. So, for the past year, 2014, the whole team was living there and living there was a great experience."

It comes as a surprise to learn that there is no embellishment in terms of story when it comes to the pregnant woman who makes the trip - she was played by Tsring Chodron, who was pregnant at the time the shooting began and did, indeed, go on to give birth along the route.

"For real Tibetan Buddhists it's very natural that during the one or even two-year duration of the pilgrimages that a pregnant woman would give birth to a baby while she was on the road," he says. "That's what I had encountered before and why when I shot the film, I tried to find a village with such an actor - a pregnant woman - so I could include this scene in the movie. Very luckily, I found one. In the beginning, as I told her that on the road we would wait for the moment she gave birth and would capture it on camera."

Interestingly, Yang himself has no specific relgious beliefs but he feels the rapid expansion of China means that there has never been a better time to consider faith and motivations.

Zhang Yang:
Zhang Yang: "For real Tibetan Buddhists it's very natural that during the one or even two-year duration of the pilgrimages that a pregnant woman would give birth"
He says: "It's the right time to shoot this film because of the rapid development of China in recent decades - people's standards of living have risen a lot but the values of people are in huge confusion. To a large extent, the standards of success are measured by money and values are led by money for a lot of people. So at this time, shooting this film is meaningful because through it we can reflect on ourselves and see what faith is and rediscover faith within ourselves.

"It's true, I have no religious beliefs. However, the shooting, as well as the movie was a process of rediscovering myself and hopefully for the audience, too. This doesn't mean that after watching the movie, you will immediately have a faith, because faith is not that simple. But by watching it, I hope you can understand yourself better and by observing their way of life and behaviour - very quietly and peacefully you get a reflection of yourself."

Paths Of The Soul screens on Friday, February 26 (sold out) and on Saturday, February 27 at 3.45pm (tickets available from the GFF website)

Watch the trailer:

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