Ethnographic documentaries, especially those that cover truly exotic territory, are valuable even when they're not done by masters.
We wouldn't complain if a cameraman had been along to record the journeys of Pizzaro or Marco Polo, to film the Mayas or any of a number of vanished civilizations--even if his techniques were less than expert. Richard Kohn--who directed "Lord of the Dance/Destroyer of Illusion" (opening at the Nuart on Sunday for a week), a record of the tantric dance festivals among the Nepalese Buddhists of Mt. Everest--is no genius of the form, though this simply means that his work is more conventional, that he's not as much of a poet and lyricist as a Robert Flaherty, a Jean Rouch ("Moi, un Noir") or a Robert Gardner ("Dead Birds").
But, in a way, he doesn't need their genius. The mere fact that Kohn was able to shoot the film at all--penetrate into this little-seen world in the Himalayas, with its quietly attentive Sherpas and villagers, its prayer wheels, its icy vistas stretching out toward a seeming infinity of snow, ground and sky--gives his documentary great value.
If its shortcomings as a film poem may possibly limit it to those people with an initial interest or absorption in the subject, it still serves that subject well.
Kohn is a student of Tibetan culture--as well as a still photographer and theater director--and, aided by Jorg Jeshel's unobtrusive camera, he covers the ground here with the scrupulousness of an academician and the love of a devotee. The ritual he shows us is the annual Mani-Rimdu festival, conducted by the monks as a symbolic purging of evil supernatural forces through an epic staged in dance.
Before the festival, artists decorate the area with symbolic visions: swirlingly colorful paintings, painstakingly constructed mandalas made of dropped, colored sand. There's one poignant shot of an old man in a frayed modern sweater, delicately adding touches and flourishes to a painting packed with myths, perhaps as old as the landscapes around him.
When the dances are finally shown--led by head lama Trulshig Rinpoche, an incessantly smiling, bald monk in slightly sinister-looking shades--we get the feeling of participating in something special and precious, all but unknown outside these forbidding mountain slopes and nearly inaccessible villages.
Even the somewhat stilted and breathless narration, the slightly blocky and literal editing, doesn't really diminish our wonder here. Whatever Kohn lacks as a film maker, he deserves quiet praise for sharing this experience with us.
'LORD OF THE DANCE/DESTROYER OF ILLUSION' A First Run Features release. Producer Franz-Christoph Giercke. Director Richard Kohn. Camera Jorg Jeshel. Sound Barbara Becker. Editor Noun Serra. Script Amanda-Beth Uhry. Narrator Peter Hudson. Translations Kohn.
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.