Issue 28 (2010)

Vitalii Manskii: Sunrise/ Sunset. Dalai Lama XIV (Rassvet/Zakat. Dalai Lama XIV, 2009)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks © 2010

Vitalii Manskii’s Sunrise/ Sunset follows a day the prominent Russian documentarian spent with the Dalai Lama, and the process of reflection about this day on the long trip back to Russia, across India and China. This is not a complex film and its style, entirely shot on location, is in no sense revolutionary. It is nevertheless a subtly personal and thoughtful film which conveys a powerful sense both of the Buddhist spiritual leader’s ideas and personality, and Manskii’s own process of reflection about them.

sunriseAs indicated by the title, the key theme of Sunrise/ Sunset is time, which comes across in the Dalai Lama’s reflections upon reincarnation and the relativity of time, but also in the film’s organization and its most interesting stylistic gestures. In between the predictable opening and closing images of dawn and dusk, the Dalai Lama’s first comment is that the sun will go out in five billion years’ time, which he regards as not long when counted in the habitual Buddhist measure of eons. He then expands on reincarnation (like changing clothes), and on the insubstantial nature of the present moment (disappearing between past and future). Thus, the film’s central organizing device is informed by these reflections on temporal relativity. In stylistic terms, the same insights are thematized through the use of slow motion, especially of the Tibetan religious leader himself, and the contrasting speeded-up sequences, mostly of traffic on the streets of surrounding Indian towns, but also of his many visitors, and of clouds (in an homage to Vertov, after whom Manskii’s production company is named). By echoing the Dalai Lama’s own analysis in the film’s style, contrasting his steady pace with that of the speeded-up pace of the rest of the world, Manskii’s film is the record not just of the man shown in front of the camera, but also of the man never seen behind it, as it charts the filmmaker’s own processes of thought and his sympathetic response to his subject. In so doing, Manskii is keeping to the first and probably the most significant commandment in his provocative 2005 manifesto, “Real Cinema” (real’noe kino), the rejection of the scenario. Sunset/Sunrise reaffirms this commitment to documentary as an open-ended process.

sunriseIn its exploration of charisma and power, Sunrise/ Sunset returns to the concerns of an earlier series of Manskii’s films, albeit on Russian leaders: Gorbachev, Yel’tsin and Putin: Gorbachev. After the Empire (Gorbachev. Posle imperii, 2000), Yel’tsin. Another Life (El’tsyn. Drugaia zhizn’, 2001) and Putin. Leap Year (Putin. Vysokosnyi god, 2001). At the same time, the film demonstrates Manskii’s ongoing striving to engage with fame and celebrity in general, often with an underlying demythologizing impulse, as with his Anatomy of Tatu (Anatomiia Tatu, 2004) and the more recent Virginity (Devstvennost’, 2008). Partly this engagement with fame and celebrity is the product of Manskii’s keen sense of what would be a marketable film project, and partly his desire to comment upon the subjects of his films in such a way as to be heard. Here too, Manskii was approached by Russian Buddhists, of whom—we are told—there are over a million, to make a film about the Dalai Lama (Manskii in Pushkareva). But while Sunrise/ Sunset functions to some degree as a vehicle for the religious leader’s views, the film also demonstrates a desire to scrutinize the ideas and reflect upon their applicability to life in general, and in Russia especially.

sunriseManskii conducts very little of this examination in the first part of the film, in the Indian place of exile of the Dalai Lama, mostly explaining facts about his schedule, security arrangements and Buddhist forms of prayer. While the film does show the Tibetan monk in an informal setting, drinking tea and watching television (where he apparently chances across himself being interviewed by Michael Palin on BBC World!), all of this adds to the overwhelming sense of his charm and humor. The camera also follows and studies pilgrims, including a group from Russia and Mongolia, as they visit the Buddhist monastery attached to the Dalai Lama’s residence, to hear his teachings. The portraits here rarely reveal more than the intense concentration and piety that might be expected of such visitors. However, Manskii uses the second part of the film, approximately the last twenty-five minutes, to analyze the Dalai Lama’s thought. Here the chief device is to play the sound of his words upon images illustrating the problems he addresses, such as poverty, overpopulation, the strain it puts on world resources, and issues of population movement, national boundaries and world peace. Increasingly, Manskii’s own voice-over commentary interjects to reflect upon the problem. Initially, the images of Indian untouchables illustrate the pressing relevance of the spiritual leader’s statements about poverty, yet Manskii’s comment that their plight is in part due to the perception that they have been reincarnated as the lowest caste, suggests a growing critical distance to the Buddhist philosophy espoused in the film so far. Similarly, the view from the plane and train window on the face of it confirms the Dalai Lama’s contrasting of China and India’s overpopulation and lack of cultivable land with Russia’s empty open spaces and falling population. Yet his solution, that Russia open her borders to the Chinese, is one that Manskii predicts confidently will fall on deaf ears. The further the filmmaker recedes from the Dalai Lama, the greater distance he gains to his ideas too, and concludes that ‘we are not yet ready for his thought.’

Jeremy Hicks
Queen Mary University of London

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Works Cited

Vitalii Manskii, “Real’noe kino,” Iskusstvo kino 11 (2005), pp. 99-100. English version

Irina Pushkareva, “Obretenie mifa: o tragedii odnogo naroda i rabote nad fil’mom ‘Rassvet/Zakat’ rasskazyvaet rezhisser kartiny Vitalii Manskii,” (interview with Manskii), Sokhranim Tibet, 6 February 2009.


Sunrise/ Sunset. Dalai Lama XIV, Russia 2009
72 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Vitalii Manskii
DoP: Irina Shatalina
Co-producer: Aleksei Kucherenko
Production: Studio Vertov. Real’noe kino.

Vitalii Manskii: Sunrise/ Sunset. Dalai Lama XIV (Rassvet/Zakat. Dalai Lama XIV, 2009)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks © 2010

Updated: 21 Mar 10