What is a ‘Buddhist Film?’

  • Author(s): John Whalen-Bridge
  • When: 2014-03
  • Where: Contemporary Buddhism
  • Films such as Kundun and Little Buddha are obvious choices to fit the category "Buddhist films" but critical studies and Buddhist film festivals have in the last decade widened the discussion to include films like The Matrix (1999) and Donnie Darko (2001), raising the question, "What is a Buddhist film?" One way to answer this question is to consider the criteria for selecting films for international Buddhist film festivals. These events include films that directly represent Buddhist characters, rites, beliefs, and material objects, but in addition to overtly Buddhist representations there are regular inclusions of "covertly" Buddhist films. In addition to overt and less direct thematic treatments, the category "Buddhist film" has come to include "draftees" films that were never intended to express a Buddhist theme but are felt by event organizers to have Buddhist implications even when there is no evidence of Buddhist intention. The practice of interpreting a non-Buddhist film in a Buddhist manner makes Buddhism appear less strange to Western audiences. Buddhist film festivals are thus part of a larger process through which Buddhism adapts and indigenizes itself in countries outside of Asia.

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