Comments, Culture, In Focus, Screen

Searching for Shambhala (2023)

Director: Tian Yu Liu. Writer: Tian Yu Liu. Running time: 15 mins. After screening “Moerasdraak”– a found-footage film about a group of students who accidentally uncover an international conspiracy during a project on broadcast journalism – I spoke to director Ruben Swart.


Jack Benjamin / Indy Film Library*


One of the things we had a good laugh at was how bad the characters were at what they were trying to do. A lack of experience, common sense, and budget meant they did all kinds of ridiculous things, from assuming sensitive footage would be safe in ‘the cloud’, to hiding from the government in their own house. It is safe to say that real-life documentarians don’t want to invoke thoughts of the hapless  “Moerasdraak” crew. But within seconds of beginning her journey to discover the mystical state of Shambhala, Tian Yu Liu manages to do just that – centring the first part of her investigation on a frustratingly non-committal internet search.

Before all that, the director explains what fuelled this relentless thirst for knowledge. She does not feel like she really knows herself. Her family is part Han (China’s – and the world’s – largest ethnic grouping) part Tibetan – and she has become convinced that getting to know the latter half better will help her get a grasp on who she is. This is not really informed by her own opinion either though, instead it is built upon something her grandfather apparently once told her if she wanted to know who she is, she would need to learn about Tibetan culture, and Shambhala.

It seems to me that before everything else gets under way, Tian Yu Liu should probably explain why Grandpa would not be a little less opaque in his advice. Would he not elaborate, in the hope she would learn a greater level of self-sufficiency? Was it something one individual could explain to another, even if he wanted to? It might have made it a little clearer why our first hint at what Shambhala is had to come from a search engine.

Putting the ‘Searching for’ in Searching for Shambhala” in the most underwhelming way possible, Tian Yu Liu initially types the phrase into Google – before giving up half-way through. Apparently the drop-down of suggested searches has put her off, as they largely relate to a music festival hosted in British Columbia. But it doesn’t take a Pulitzer Prize winner to tell you that to get useful responses from Google, you really just need to press the Enter key! Having done so, I can tell you the top response would have been my nearest meditation centre where further answers may be found, or a Wikipedia article, if I can’t be bothered with the walk.

Our intrepid reporter instead decides to turn to the world’s new bastion of truth and integrity, ChatGPT – which definitely hasn’t been caught making up ‘facts’ so regularly that its own Chief Technology Officer has to keep issuing disclaimers for it – for answers. Oddly enough, for an ‘artificial intelligence’ model whose most obvious usage is to plagiarise content easily, ChatGPT has a very similar description of Shambhala to the one I found on Wikipedia. It is a spiritual kingdom from Buddhist folklore, which may or may not have a physical location, offering inner peace and enlightenment.

Whenever I watch a documentary which begins with a Google search, I die a little. It feels like starting an essay with a dictionary definition. But starting a documentary with a ChatGPT citation seems as trustworthy as building an essay around a JPEG from your uncle’s Facebook timeline. Admittedly, Wikipedia has also been used to fib before – but because of its opensource system, at least we eventually find out who has been fiddling with the facts. That is not ever going to be the case with AI, which is already becoming a handy tool for liars to distance themselves from responsibility for the things they say. Either way, though, neither source is good enough for the start of a documentary which needs to build a compelling argument with its audience that it is itself a reputable source.

To be fair to Tian Yu Liu, her submission form does note that she is a first-time filmmaker. Despite this documentary noting that it contains footage from another, disconnected production – where she was filming elderly people make textile collages at the Bowers Museum in California – I will give her the benefit of the doubt. Who knows if she directed that, or if the project has even been completed yet. But I do also feel like it reflects poorly on Chapman University – the institution for which this project was created – as it seems like “don’t use ChatGPT as a source” should be quite high on the agenda for teaching documentary-making.

Moving on, to her credit, Tian Yu Liu does grow into her role as investigator, and gets well beyond her initial surface-level considerations by Searching for Shambhala’s conclusion. Her journey takes her from sunny LA; to an art exhibition in Amsterdam, where she has a piece encouraging observers to contribute their own little fragment of Shambhala; before ending in Tibet, speaking to a monk who has read many important Buddhist works. On arrival, the cinematography of Zhibin Geng, Ruoyu Wang and Zhengyang Du finally has space to pick out some stunning images. More generally, it is also here where Tian Yu Liu’s film really comes alive, with a much-needed injection of introspection and humour into proceedings. When the apparent expert is asked what he knows about Shambhala as he hungrily chomps through his lunch, he replies with a wry smile, “I don’t know.

It is a scene that ought to last longer than it does, and could have offered an opportunity for the director to light-heartedly call into question the point of this whole expedition. A little sly cynicism in a film about earnest spiritual quests is always appreciated. It makes them a bit more human, a bit more relatable.

Even so, the encounter seems to bring some kind of realisation from the filmmaker. Was she ever really trying to know herself in her search for Shambhala, or simply trying to find aspects of other people’s expectations inside herself? The closing moments of the film are the deepest and most introspective, and even if they were too short and could have gone further, that is a revelation that has been worth the journey. It just might have been more convenient for Tian Yu Liu if it hadn’t involved a trip of thousands of miles – and dollars – first.

Overall grade

As hung up about journalistic practices as I might be, they’re not really important in this case. What is more important is a fledgling documentarian learning to move beyond looking for the answers she has been told are important and to ask her own questions instead. While it might not have delivered a perfect product this time, that is an ability that will open up new, exciting avenues for her to explore the world, its cultures, and her own thoughts and feelings.

*Article originally published in Indy Film Library.

(Photos: Indy Media Film)

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