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Review: In 'Digital Dharma,' found texts but lost opportunity

The documentary about how one man's passion saved the sacred texts of Tibetan Buddhism lacks focus.

August 09, 2012|By Mindy Farabee
  • A scene from "Digital Dharma: One Man's Mission to Save a Culture."
A scene from "Digital Dharma: One Man's Mission to Save a Culture." (Dafna Yachin )

"Digital Dharma: One Man's Mission to Save a Culture," an informative if not entirely engaging documentary centered on American E. Gene Smith's lifelong efforts to collect and preserve the sacred texts of Tibetan Buddhism, pays homage to a noble undertaking but little illuminates the man whose passion animated it.

Smith was born in Ogden, Utah, and raised in the Mormon faith. In the early 1960s, when Tibetan refugees began to arrive in the U.S., fleeing the Chinese occupation, Smith was a doctoral student studying Asian languages at the University of Washington. Called upon to help the new arrivals acclimate, Smith learned of the precarious state of Tibetan literature. He traveled to India and Nepal soon after.

Both during his tenure with a Library of Congress field office overseas and in his two decades of retirement, Smith worked diligently to rebuild a Tibetan library scattered by both the invasion and subsequent Cultural Revolution.

Director Dafna Yachin's use of archival images, including dramatic footage of burning monasteries, striking location shots and interviews with scholars, provides compelling glimpses into history and culture, as well as thoughtful context for events such the Tibetan uprising of 2008. But when the film circles back to Smith, often momentum flags.

Various scenes of the American visiting monks, monasteries and old friends, bequeathing thumb drives and Mac Minis full of rescued texts, for instance, are touching, but feel one-dimensional.

Perhaps unsure as to whether its main focus is the man or the texts, Yachin's film doesn't quite make what it could of either.


"Digital Dharma: One Man's Mission to Save a Culture." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes. At Laemmle's Noho 7, North Hollywood.

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