With “The Medicine Buddha“, director Benjamin Johns (“Traveller”, “Tribe”) brings the wonderful, beautiful and immensely inspiring story of the Mongolian Buddhist leader, head professor and chief doctor Khamba Lama Natsagdorj to life. Our reporter Liselotte Vanophem sat together with both men and spoke about the documentary, Mongolia, faith and what’s to come.
Liselotte Vanophem: Congratulations on the beautiful documentary. How did you come across his story?
Benjamin Johns: So I was making a film in Australia about an Australian aboriginal elder and after that, I was looking into making another documentary and what to do next. Through a colleague of mine who knows Khamba Lama, I heard about him. I did some research about him and I thought that he would make a very interesting subject and story for my next film. So then we started the progress of securing the funding to make the film.
LV: What was your reaction when he told you that he wanted to make a documentary about your life?
Khamba Lama Natsagdorj: Well, I’ve been coming to London since 1991 once a year and I’ve been giving people medical treatment here as well. Not only in Mongolia. One of my friends who know how I work here and how I help people called me and told me that Benjamin wanted to make a film about a wisdom keeper and asked me if I wanted to join them. I agreed with it and they came to visit Mongolia. The first time they stayed for one week and then they went back. Afterwards, they came back to Mongolia to make “The Medicine Buddha” documentary.
LV: For this documentary, you’ve filmed in a lot of temples and monasteries which can be considered as sacred places. How difficult was it for you to get access to that and how did the people there react?
BJ: As Khamba Lama already said, we did a short pre-production trip for one week in Mongolia and then afterwards we went back with a crew. We had fantastic access through Khamba Lama and his monastery and hospital and everyone was very open and engaged with what we were doing. Honestly, there weren’t really any restrictions. We obviously then put together a schedule of shooting over a month. We shot a whole range of different things. There are three big sections which come all together into this one documentary. First part is about the Mongolian life during the Lunar New Year and the big celebrations. We saw many different activities and we got to know Khamba Lama through those different experiences. The second part is about his life and work in the city. We see him as a doctor, as the head Lama at the monastery and as a teacher at the University where they train doctors. The third part is about when we went on a pilgrimage to his homeland which is a very remote area. It was a very special journey as it took us to Khamba Lama his birthplace and the places where he grew up.
LV: How was it for you to take him to your birthplace and on the pilgrimage?
KLN: They asked me if I could ride a horse. Of course, I could but it was almost ten years ago since I rode a horse for the last time. When we went to my homeland, I really recognized my childhood again. It made me think about my family and about the many good experiences I had there. During that time, I was really happy. It was wintertime when we went and so it was really cold. However, the crew of this film was very good to work with and they were very hard working and making sure that the film would be a successful one.
LV: The documentary is also about health, family, friends and life. Did it make you think about those topics differently?
BJ: Yeah, I’ve learned a lot during the making of this film. From making it to getting to know Khamba Lama Natsagdorj. Now I practice some Buddhism myself and learn some mantras the Lama’s told me. It was such a rich experience. That journey, the pilgrimage, stays with you and it was definitely a highlight. I’m very blessed to had the change making this film.
LV: That was actually going to be my next question: What the moment that will stick with you forever?
BJ: There are definitely many highlights. One of them was the journey we undertook to the birthplace with four jeeps and some support trucks. When we filmed there was a lot of snow and ice and the temperatures outside went down to like minus 25, minus 30. There weren’t many roads and so you have to force your way through the snow. We had the help from the skilful drivers and Lama’s powerful prayers to keep us safe. The local government gave, I called them, his boys who drove a truck and followed us everywhere to make sure that we didn’t have any mishaps because our jeep could have easily come off the road or overturn. Obviously, in those freezing temperatures, you can’t be sitting around. We covered about 800 kilometres forcing our own ways through snow and ice and our drivers were unbelievable. They went as fast as it was safe to be able to cover all the ground that needed to be covered. It was quite an adventure. We stayed in the huts in a remote mountainside with some of Lama’s family. We went to sleep at about three in the morning because there was his family gathering that we filmed. It’s really a very interesting moment in the film because they were very relaxed, sharing some food. Some of the children probably never have seen someone like me and so when we went to bed there was a bunch of people basically watching us falling to sleep. I think I got about three hours of sleep and when I woke up they were still standing there watching us. That was quite a funny moment. Afterwards, I got up and saw the beautiful dawn.
LV: Was it the first time you went to Mongolia during the making of this film?
BJ: Yes. I did the pre-production trip and then the principal photography was the second trip, which was the longest trip. I’ve been back twice since. I went back once to show Lama and his family the film and I had some treatment in his hospital. The second time was because we were nominated for the Mongolian Academy Award, which we won. That one was a very short trip.
LV: What do you hope that people will take away with them after watching this film?
BL: I generally make films that are entertaining but also that make you think. People hopefully will be inspired by what they see and the journey we take them on. For some people, this might spark a deeper interest and might look into this with more detail into the medical world. Maybe they find their way into it, just like I did, and can benefit from that. Other people might just be interested in seeing the culture because you don’t see the Mongolian culture often on screen. I hope there are a lot of different things people can take away with them.
KLN: I hope that people might take away the knowledge about the medicine and medical treatments we have in Mongolia. Our Mongolian Traditional Medical Treating Centre was built in 1990. Since 1994, communism destroyed what’s known about the history of our medical treatments and medicine. Our centre is trying to rebuild that history and contributing to the human being. Bringing that knowledge to everyone. Both with the monastery as well as the hospital. We also have factories producing 180 different herbal medicines. Our centre is also teaching how to give down that knowledge to younger generations and how to help other people.
LV: Just one last question: Do you already have other projects coming up after this one?
BJ: We’ve been developing some projects. On the documentary side, there’s a music-based documentary in Cuba and we will be shooting that next year in the spring. I’ve done the preproduction of that already so that’s in a good place. I’ve got a feature film called “The Mud Hut” and we’re aiming to shoot that one in September this year. We got a high profile cast that’s coming together for that and we’re hoping to conclude the casting in the next few weeks. We will announce that in due course. Those are my next big projects which are all exciting.