FULL FRAME: A modern ‘Siddhartha’ story

Apr. 03, 2014 @ 04:29 PM

Filmmakers Tina Mascara and Guido Santi have chronicled a modern “Siddhartha” in their documentary “Monk with a Camera.” Nicholas “Nicky” Vreeland, the son of a diplomat and grandson of Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, had all the trappings of wealth. He fastidiously polished his Italian shoes, and wore tailored clothes. A photographer, he studied with Irving Penn.
One day, after he began meditating, he decided to follow the path of Tibetan Buddhism, and put all his shoes on the street in New York for people to take. Now he is the abbot of Rato Dratsang, a Tibetan government monastery under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Nicky Vreeland is the principal narrator in the film, which was screened Thursday at the opening day of the 17th Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
His decision came about slowly. He was “no more unhappy than anyone else,” Vreeland states in the documentary. Born in Switzerland, he and his family lived in many different countries before moving back to the United States, when Vreeland was 13. Having grown up abroad, he felt like an outsider in his own country, and took up photography. In the late 1970s, he realized that the world of appearances “would not carry him across.”
He began his studies at the monastery, eventually earning the equivalent of a doctorate. As more monks came to the monastery to study Buddhism, the monks began looking to expand the facilities. Donors pledged money, which dried up after the 2008 worldwide recession.
He turned to friends and family, who suggested that he raise the money by selling some of his photos. He raised $400,000, enough to complete the work at Rato. The Dalai Lama inaugurated the revamped monastery, and eventually appointed Vreeland abbot.
Vreeland “did not agree to do the movie right away,” Mascara said during a post-screening Q&A session in the Carolina Theatre’s Fletcher Hall. His spiritual teacher, Khyongla Rinpoche, who was a major influence on Vreeland’s spiritual life and figures heavily in this story, encouraged him to allow the documentarians to tell the story, as did the Dalai Lama, Mascara said.
It took time to get Vreeland to sign the necessary release forms, she said. He once told her, “not now, but I will.” He wanted to make sure the filmmakers did an accurate portrayal of Tibetan Buddhism and were respectful toe Rinpoche, Mascara said.
Mascara ran across Vreeland’s story while doing research for another documentary and knew she wanted to document his spiritual journey. The filmmakers spent three years following Vreeland and the monks.
Asked if being a woman visiting the monastery posed a challenge, Mascara said men and women are allowed to visit. “It’s a real joy to be around these monks,” she said. “It’s really humbling because they are so generous.”
For Vreeland, his photography is a source of conflict – is it a means to virtue, or another ego attachment? He continues to perfect his craft.
During the Q&A, a filmmaker told Mascara that he had always wanted to document Vreeland’s story, but that Vreeland refused. “His story is such a perfect film. What a beautiful job,” he told Mascara of the film.
“Monk with a Camera” is one of the new documentaries in competition for awards at the festival. The festival continues today, Saturday and Sunday.