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Amchi- Tibetan Medicine and Ethical Anthropological Filmmaking

Former MPhil student Elif Eda Tibet tells us about her latest documentary.

Amchi is an observational road trip documentary, about an idealistic Tibetan doctor Amchi Karma Chodon journey with her five month old baby Teljor into the Himalayas of Ladakh.

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Amchi and her son Teljor, on their way to raise awareness and conduct a final course with her students on women and child healthcare.

In the film Amchi Karma goes to Zanskar, the most remote region in Ladakh, to give a final revision class for her graduated students on women and child-healthcare. Before she reaches to her final destination she stops by at Tso Moriri, the highest lake in Ladakh near Korzok village to find the Changpa nomads so to give them an awareness campaign on preventive women and child healthcare. The film raises concerns over the protection of the medicinal plants which are under great threat due to climate change, overgrazing, unscientific exploitation and questions the future of the young amchis, as Tibetan Medicine if not supported by the government and its own people, is a tradition under the threat of extinction.

Amchi Karma Chodon a Tibetan refugee and a prior nomad herself, holds the Katchupa diploma (Tib. dka’ bcu pa), which she received from the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Choglamsar. She is the main professor during the Dusrapa training (4 years education program for Tibetan Medicine) at the NGO where she currently works for in Ladakh Society for Traditional Medicines (LSTM). She has been a social worker for the last thirty years of her life, in which in between she ran a clinic for sometime in Leh. Her skills and knowledge have given her the opportunity to travel to England, Switzerland and France, where she has given lectures and treated European patients as well.

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Amchi Karma Chodon and Amchi Namgyal at Korzok Village with the Changpa people near Tso Moriri Lake during the women and child healthcare campaign.

It was during my time at the NGO (2012) where I was assisting the program coordinator on financial and administrative issues where Amchi Karma suggested that I come and travel with her,  to understand better what they do. I was delighted by her offer and made some funny dance moves out of joy. Amchi and her eldest son, a 14 year old Monk who came for a visit from DehraDun, laughed out loud. She observed that I was just like her son.

This little brief dialogue was the beginning of my very meaningful friendship with this very intelligent and courageous woman, who’d play a major role in my spiritual, mental and personal development in the following months.

I felt extremely fortunate, that I was there with her to film events as they happened.  As a team in LSTM we had the idea to use some visual clips for fundraising purposes. Also, Amchi Karma Chodon wanted to interview her students’ for their feedback on the courses she had given to them and she wanted them to raise their voices on the difficulties they faced while treating patients. So initially we used visual material solely for research and documentation purposes. Although I did not speak and understand a word of Bhoti language, I had this strange instinctual feeling that I should be filming any detail that I was allowed to by the Amchi, students and the people. We actually had no time to even set up a tripod, as we were on a constant move and had lots of work to do to carry out the awareness campaigns. We would carry them out in two to three different villages a day and would go to sleep by midnight and wake up early the next morning, to carry on.

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Landscape of Zanskar, early in the morning on our way to the gompa with Amchi Kanji.

After a very challenging, exhausting and yet a life changing experience of 15 days travelling in Zanskar (October 2012) together in very difficult conditions.  Horrible roads and flat tires were the least of the  challenging issues we faced. On the way back I got extremely sick. Amchi Karma  diagnosed me with a minor inefficiency problem in my left kidney that was probably triggered by the high altitude, an illness that was hidden in me for long.

After a week of trying to recover in Leh, which was quite difficult as the weather got extremely cold, dropping down to minus 15 degrees at nights, I had to fly back to Delhi, and later on had to go back to my home in Istanbul. I insisted on using Amchi Karma’s prescribed medicines for 52 days, and I was entirely cured within two months. The doctor in Istanbul couldn’t believe how effective the medicines she gave were, in the beginning the doctor  just laughed at me, and insisted that I take Western medicine just in case.

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Amchi Karma and her students in the class at Amchi & Astrological Centre in Zanskar.

But I knew that this was not a mystical recovery, the medicine I used was based on a thousand year old heritage, and on medicinal plants that would grow only on the high altitude of the mighty Himalayas, ancient scripts based on astrology, prayers and hundreds of trials and enhancements made on it. There was nothing for me to be surprised about. The surprised doctor keenly watched the film and admitted that there was a lot for him to learn from holistic medicine, which is exactly what LSTM strives to achieve by bringing together Tibetan Medicine with Allopathic medicine in India.

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Amchi Karma’s student conducting women and child healthcare awareness campaign in her own village in Zanskar.

So after I became better, I sat down to watch the recently transcribed material we had, and I could not believe my eyes that there was a very satisfying and natural scenario to it. After asking for the full consent and permission from Amchi Karma I proposed to turn it into a film.  All I did was to bring things together as they happened and ask to my favorite two-world famous Tibetan musicians Tenzin Choegyal and Ani Choying Dolma for consent four soundtrack to their beautiful songs. Both said yes, and have granted their music with great generosity.

It actually took me a whole year to decide what to do about the film, whether I should have gone back to Ladakh to improve the film or should I just be going on with what I was gifted for the time I was granted there. I followed my inner voice and decided that I should follow the amateur in me.  I decided to keep the film as sincere and simple as possible and let go of my desire to improve it artistically.  That would have been another year of struggle, and might have complicated my relationships with the people out there if I went with a professional team of cameramen.

After I made up my mind, it took me only four months to finish the editing myself. I needed no color or sound correction as what I had was absolutely beautiful thanks to the serene landscape and good fortune we had while filming randomly.

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Amchi Film Poster

It was also remarkable that I finally recovered from my illness during the post production process so I decided to put an explanatory sentence under the title AMCHI, “on the path of Sowa Rigpa, the way to healing…”

I then submitted the the film to various festivals. It recently won two awards of excellence for the best original song and filmmaker of inspiration, and two honorable mentions for best originality/creativity of the story and best cinematography from Indonesia’s prominent International film festival of Jakarta (June 2014). The awards were given by the health minister of Indonesia. We have also been nominated for the best foreign documentary film by American Online Awards (Dec.2014) and have been officially selected for a showcase in Lucerne Film Festival in Switzerland (Oct 2014).

Aside from raising awareness and advocating for the recognition of Sowa Rigpa around the world, opening up conversation among the prominent amchis to consider women and child healthcare more in depth within the discipline, our other major aim continues to be to find the right sponsor for LSTM.  I believe the film can play an important role in this goal.

Our film was also reviewed by The Tibetan council for Medicine and gained approval from the prominent amchis from Men- Tsee Khang in Dharmsala which was established by his Holiness the 14th Dalai lama during the 50’s after establishing his government in exile there in India. The film was then screened at the Tibet festival of the people of Himalayas organized by the Tibet bureau of his Holliness in Paris on the 14th of June in 2014, followed up by a conversation with Amchi Tsamchoe.

Very soon Amchi will be distributed by a professional distributor and all the royalty rights will be dedicated to Amchi Karma and her social projects on women & healthcare. After all, participatory and shared anthropology should not just remain as an approach for the making of the film and the post production process but should be there as a concern for after what happens also.

I believe filmmakers should share their earnings with the people they film as they are the reason for their films to come into existence in the first place.  It was saddening for me to read just recently that the lead Nepalese actor  today , who played at the inspiring film nominated for Academy Awards, Himalaya by Eric Valli is still penniless and struggles for survivor. I dreamt of becoming a filmmaker after seeing that film.

It is very upsetting to see that the industry and agents between the broadcasters and filmmakers are making things very difficult, and that is why I decided to remain out of the industry.  I managed to make my way into being even more creative and productive while producing really low budget films that got into festivals and Tv broadcast, as I collaborate only with the like minded people. As we live on the cutting edge of technology, it is certainly the time for independent documentary filmmakers and visual anthropologists to establish their vision more widely.

One should recognize and admit that the making and the destiny of a film is beyond the filmmaker herself, as the universe may have better plans with it and it would be a pity if one blocks good things from happening with unnecessary limiting self interests, as for me there is nothing so important about “the self” if compared to the amazing life stories we have luckily access to film.

So, I suggest 7 epistemological and ideological ideas to guide ethical visual anthropological film-making.  I find them to be very rewarding and am determined to follow them in future work. I gathered these principles from my personal experiences and from literature, particularly the book edited by Pink , Alfonso and Kurti on “Working Images: Visual Research and Representation in Ethnography” (2004);

  •  The film’s main characters should become full members of the research and film-making process.
  • There should be the desire to reach and work towards social change leading to a fairer society based on self-management and solidarity among persons and groups.
  • There should be a (Self-) critical passion for revealing hidden aspects of our society and ourselves.
  • There should be a conviction that social change will only follow individual transformation, and can be best achieved through group work and equal participation.
  • To ensure that the achievements of our individual and group subjects work to reduce negative entropy.
  • In order to work this way it is imperative that no person or institution, including film / research team, NGO or association sets the agenda on the basis of their financial contribution. It is a prerequisite that our documentaries are majorly self funded- and visuals are strictly protected and not shared other then education and cultural use with third parties.
  • That all the earnings from awards and royalty rights of the distribution of the films or images shall be shared equally between the filmmakers and the main characters.

To learn more about the film:

Official Web Site: www.amchithefilm.com

To learn more about Eda Elif Tibet’s latest productions:

www.tibettoproductions.weebly.com

 

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