Film Review: Digital Dharma

Serene, intellectually feel-good documentary about an American linguist’s quest to digitally preserve the religious literature of Tibet has a gorgeous look and a superb main character, but hits the same notes a few too many times.

Dafna Yachin’s documentary does at least one of the things that all good documentaries should do, and that is the introduction of audiences to extraordinary people. In the case of Digital Dharma, that person is E. Gene Smith. As a Mormon kid from Utah, Smith wasn’t the sort of person one would expect to end up one of the world’s foremost authorities on Tibetan Buddhist scripture. But an early appetite for language (his sister estimates he ultimately had at least some facility in an impressive 32 tongues) ultimately led him far from home.

With the help of modern-day interviews and grainy old footage that it’s hard to believe exists, Yachin tells the story of how the 1959 Chinese pogrom in Tibet drove out a large component of the mountain nation’s Buddhist monks. After a number of these refugees landed in Washington State in the early 1960s, Smith (studying at the University of Washington) ended up living with the family of one of the lamas, Dezhung Rinpoche, and becoming a close friend. Smith also developed a passionate interest in Tibetan Buddhist scripture, which is not only many times more voluminous than any other major religion’s (numbering in the thousands of manuscripts) but was in danger of being nearly lost completely.

Not long after his introduction to Tibetan culture and religion (which he thought was “a pretty cool religion if it makes such nice people”), Smith landed in New Delhi, where he was working on a cultural mission for the Library of Congress. (It was one of those world-spanning outreach programs that number among the more missed artifacts of the Cold War.) Smith’s house there became a way station for Tibetan refugees, particularly monks, who wanted to see his already-impressive collection of scriptures. He would go on to accumulate thousands more. The decades-long project that Smith embarked on was impressive in its scope: to copy down as many of these scriptures that hadn’t been burned by the People’s Liberation Army. It also involved an amount of skullduggery, as Tibetans had oftentimes buried scriptures in order to save them from the invaders, and Smith was treated with suspicion in India as a possible CIA agent. Ultimately, this copying process evolves with the digital age to the point where Smith is able to hand a lama or monk a hard drive containing more scriptures than most had ever seen in their lives. The dream is to put everything online so that it will be fully accessible to the world.

While the story of Digital Dharma and Smith’s intellectual rescue mission (he terms it an “ongoing transmission of culture”) is undeniably fascinating, the film never quite builds up a head of steam. The emphasis on preserving these frequently fragile documents is made early on, and then repeated, and repeated again. More discussion of Tibetan Buddhism’s unique cosmology and theology would have been greatly appreciated. Fortunately, Smith’s welcome presence as a wizened but still cherubic figure of abundant charisma—he comes off as a great teacher, a mentor’s mentor—helps give this gorgeously shot but slightly unengaging film the character it otherwise lacks.