Movie Review: Wheel of Time

By Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D
Movie Magazine International
Werner Herzogís new documentary, "Wheel of Time" is a front row seat and backstage pass to one of the most important Buddhist rituals in the Tibetan tradition. A half-million people travel from afar to this ritual meant to promote peace and tolerance, some of them one body length at a time with consecutive prostrations. It is held in Bodh Gaya, India, at the very place where Buddha was enlightened under the Bhodi tree over two thousand years ago and under a fifth generation descendent of the original tree that stands in the same place. The Dalai Lama usually leads the ritual, but in India he has to tell the crestfallen crowd that his serious illness precludes his participation. We see the same ritual held in Graz, Austria, and some footage of a yearly pilgrimage to the Holy Mount Kailash in Tibet.

The significance of this film is in the meditative feeling it engenders, the privileged view of the 12-day gathering, and the fascinating informal interviews with pilgrims that help us understand the meaning the ritual holds for them. We also see the beautiful smiling faces of the faithful. But its most noteworthy aspect is visually spectacular footage -- of the colorful Tibetan prayer flags on the top of Mt. Kailash, the mountain itself, and especially the dramatic footage of the sand mandala.

Monks work around the clock using small funnels to tap tiny amounts of colored sand to represent the 720 deities in this seven-foot diameter circular artwork. The mandala, or wheel of time, represents the steps of enlightenment. After the monks meticulously create the mandala a glass shield is constructed around it, because even breathing could blow the sand out of place. The pilgrims pass by the creation. And then, to represent the impermanence of life, the monks destroy it.

There is very little explanation of the Buddhist philosophies for the uninitiated. Werner Herzog does all the filming himself on Mount Kailash because he didnít get permits to film, and went as a tourist. At one time he wipes the snow off camera lens with his thumb and keeps on filming. At times Herzogís camera was too intrusive, invading and holding for awkwardly long periods in private moments of meditation, to the point of discomfort, for the subject and the audience.

The Dalai Lama gives us some pearls of wisdom about equality, the importance of a healthy environment, and the value of all religions. We see a pilgrim buy birds from a vender and set them free, demonstrating that all living beings are equal and that all can become a Buddha; but in order to become a Buddha, you have to be free. A former Chinese prisoner talks about his jail sentence. He was imprisoned for 37 years, most of those years tacked on because he yelled "Free Tibet!" from his jail cell. Amused, he laughs while talking about it, epitomizing the acceptance of suffering in Buddhist philosophy.

In San Francisco, this is Joan Widdifield for Movie Magazine. ©
Air date: 8/10/05
More Information:
Wheel of Time
2003; Written and directed by Werner Herzog