At the heart of cinema, as in any art form, is the story of human consciousness. It’s an exploration of what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger calls “Da-sein” which in simple terms means “being-in-the-world”. It’s about what it means to be human and our place in the cosmos.

Cinema can be transcendental and beyond and at the same time it can be within the phenomenology of human condition and experience. It can be as humane as a cry of our existential agony and as mystical as the “language of human spirit”. It can be as cold as reality and as enthralling as discovering an unknown world. It can be a violent spectacle and it can be deeply meditative. The camera can be used as a narrow “male gaze” or as a “transcendental gaze”: the lens can offer a nuanced and introspective interpretation of the gnawing inner turmoil of a dying man, or it can perceive the “emptiness” of a free independent spirit. From the sublime to the absurd, cinema takes in the whole range of human experience. However, at the bottom of it all, a great film is weighed by its timelessness, and by its potential to endure deep analysis and for its aesthetic and cognitive richness.

Cinema, today, has become one of the most dominant art forms in the world. A film can mean different things to different people. A film can offer escape and entertainment, and it can be about money and consumerism, or glamour and fame. But those things are not the legacy or heritage of great cinema, and nor should they be the objectives of human accomplishment. A film is about seeking understanding of our deep, fundamental values, is a form of wisdom as a critique, and represents the search for beauty and true nature of being. It should be about the filmmakers finding their own voice and expressing it in the form that cannot be detached from the content, the art from the craft, and that is not a tool of propaganda.

If our film industry is suffering from an identity crisis, it’s a crisis of meaning, the crisis of “art”. The crisis, which has existed on a practical level for a long time, has arisen because of the absence of diversity of thoughts and ideas, which is fundamentally a problem of a lack of good screenplay writers. However, a film is also an expression created by a multitude of technicians and artists, and to complicate things further, making any film, let alone a good one, takes a lot of money. As Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the Mexican director of the film The Revenant (2015) said, “to make a film is easy; to make a good film is war. To make a very good film is a miracle.”

The first cinema theatre in Bhutan was built in 1960 in Samdrup Jongkhar, and then came MIG in Phuentsholing in 1964, Losel in Gelephu and Lugar in Thimphu in 1972 showing mostly Bollywood films. The first Bhutanese feature film came out in 1989. So, we have been associated with the idea of cinema for quite a long time now. Yet, our films have not been able to think out of the box office and break free from the shackles of banality and conformity. Today, there is a stereotypical type of film commonly made in Bhutan: a musical melodrama with a bittersweet nostalgic quality from the perspective of a “male gaze” and generally confined to the theme of the rift between the rich and poor, rural and urban, tradition and modernity, in which the apolitical characters, like found objects, meekly obey the plot rather than developing into complex subjects with paradoxes, inner wounds, dreams, desires and memories. Most of these films do not strive to dive deep to discover the “inner face” and take control of the inner ownership of the story. The narrative of such films seems to be in a hurry to reach the moral of the story without exploring morality. In other words, it’s a bureaucratized narrative. The “moral of the story” seems to have become some sort of an artifice, like a clickbait. It’s like rewarding the audience with the symbols of catharsis, but not the catharsis itself. There is an important distinction between moral art and moralising art: as Bernardo Bertolucci, the director of the Little Buddha (1993) suggested, moralising is best left to the audience: “I don’t film messages. I let the post office take care of those.”

The future of our cinema will fundamentally depend on how deeply we are willing to explore and ponder the three elemental forces of the nature of being, and which are arguably the foundations of living a meaningful life, and therefore of meaningful cinema: beauty, freedom and philosophy.


Beauty, as an aesthetic value, is that transcendental flow of feeling from outward awareness to inward awareness, when the external existence and the internal existence meet in that moment of time and space in recognition, dignity and harmony to expand the human consciousness. It’s a frisson of intrinsic vastness. Beauty is about the now, the present, because the time is of the essence in its experience. The meaning is in the presence of life.

The Japanese art of Kintsugi finds beauty in “brokenness” and “acceptance,” and also in the “imperfection and impermanence”, the transitory nature of life, as postulated by the philosophical concept of aesthetics called Wabi-Sabi. In another Japanese art form, the practice of flower arrangement called Ikebana, the beauty lies in the arrangement of the “negative space” around or in between the flowers, and that is the key to bringing out the “inner qualities” of the flowers. This space, called “Ma” in Japanese, is extensively used by the great Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and was also explored in the recent Japanese film Drive My Car (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi.

But beauty can also be an aggregate of many qualities and elements. Here is how a screenplay analyst (YouTube @LessonsfromtheScreenplay) explains a beautiful scene from a French romantic drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) written and directed by Celine Sciamma, where form and content come together to show the dynamics of two women, the painter and her subject, who fall in love with each other: “It’s not about seizing power in order to dominate. It’s about deconstructing the power dynamics between the observer and the observed to unlock the equality. It’s only after Marianne and Heloise achieved equality, their desire can be blossomed into love.” The camera is placed exactly where it needs to be, and shot by shot the scene builds towards making both a psychological and a thematic point, all executed with exquisite clarity and precision.

In this age of consumerism and instrumental rationality, beauty has become an indispensible virtue to help us to cultivate a sense of self, which attaches us to our humanity. Sir Roger Scruton, the English philosopher of aesthetics warns us, ”We are in danger of losing beauty and therefore the meaning of life.”


All art is an expression of freedom, and is an artefact of the freedom of thought. It’s a manifestation of a struggle for freedom, or of the sweet taste of being free. Freedom allows us to dream, to imagine.

The word “freedom” has become slippery and ambiguous. The concept of being free is romanticised. It’s easy to argue that there is no such thing as true freedom and that with freedom comes responsibility. The notion of freedom depends on how far away each individual perceives the iron bars as being from themself. The meaning of freedom lies not, therefore, in asking what it means, but in defining it for oneself.

Censorship is a form of cultural vandalism. It is an insecure political judgement based on negation. It destroys the seed of creativity and innovation. Censorship essentially herds everyone in into thinking alike. However, as Benjamin Franklin argues, “if everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.” We should, therefore, learn to illuminate, not eliminate. To eliminate is to instil fear. To illuminate is to set free.

Freedom comes in diverse forms; it can be seen and experienced in the films of magical chaos of the inimitable Emir Kusturica, in the “the most achingly beautiful, richly humane movies” of Satyajit Ray, in the surreal films of Luis Bunuel and in the profoundness and simplicity of Yasujiro Ozu, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

The 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza said that, “the highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding because to understand is to be free.” Our universe expands only as much as our intellectual horizon expands, as much as our curiosity, wonder and inquiry expands. Freedom gives us the power to dream. To dream is to hope.  A film must be dreamt in freedom.


Philosophy can be considered not only as a love of wisdom but also as having a humanistic function, representing a broad approach to living. Philosophy provides a kind of a moral map. It makes us live better lives through seeking and finding meaning through locating authenticity, and through living in one’s essence.

Philosophy helps us to ask meaningful questions, and to get under the “bonnet of reality.” It’s about getting those fundamental questions right in order to subject our values to critical reflection. It’s natural that one’s philosophy of life flows into one’s philosophy of art.

The types of fundamental questions that cinema can ask include: Why do you want to tell the story that you want to tell? Why do the characters behave the way they behave? A film does not necessarily have to have an answer; it’s more important that the question is asked. The why is more important than the how. If you get the “why” right, the “how” will follow, sooner or later. Without knowing the “why”, the philosophical truth behind the story will remain elusive.

The films of the great Swedish director and writer Ingmar Bergman questions the silence of God and The Criterion Collection of his films states, “drawing on (his) own upbringing and ongoing spiritual crises, the films examine the necessity of religion and question the promise of faith.”

To create is to open up a world of possibilities. The great Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa, who was also an artist in his own right, was once asked if it’s possible to put the entire meaning of life in a single brushstroke. He replied, “Yes”.

Of  Death, Life and a Story

When a life begins, a story begins, for we live in a story. Telling stories is a culture’s way of seeing where we are, of trying to understand our place in the family, in the society, and placing our insignificant selves on the infinite timeline of the universe. Different stories are just a different ways of being. When we don’t have stories, we are lost. 

We don’t know where we are. But life is more than a story. Perhaps, a story is more than a life. Who knows?

As the bright yellow sun leans on the sill

the pale moon falls off the blue curtain.

As the cloud crumbles and a cicada weeps

the drunken mists rise up under a rain of willow leaves.

As 6:50 am floats by, Bob Dylan sings,

“I sleep with life and death in the same bed.” 

Without death and life, without death as a question and life as an answer, there would be no art, no cinema. To live—with love, passion and prayers—is the only answer. That’s what cinema is all about. 

Contributed by, Tashi Gyeltshen