August 29, 2013
Greg Sneddon: Monk turned filmmaker. Photo: Tim Swallow
As a former Buddhist monk, Greg Sneddon had a mantra while making a new Australian film in Bhutan: ”Do the best you can with what you have.”
It proved valuable many times while shooting a self-funded drama in the mountains, villages, monasteries and fortresses of the tiny Himalayan nation.
Instead of organising auditions, for example, his novice Bhutanese co-producer delivered just six actors for the six main roles the day before an astrologer had decreed that filming must start.
Sneddon quickly modified the script and, after blessings from the high lama, began shooting Arrows Of The Thunder Dragon, a story about a brother and sister with a talent for archery.
Unknown even to industry insiders, Sneddon’s under-the-radar film had its world premiere at the CinefestOz Film Festival in Western Australia.
Once it was rare for directors to make an Australian film in a foreign-language in another country. Remarkably, Arrows of the Thunder Dragon is the third set in Asia this year, joining The Rocket (Laos), which opens in cinemas this week, and Ruin (Cambodia), which debuts at the Venice Film Festival next week.
A musician and screen composer who became a monk, then realised it was not for him – ”I couldn’t let go of the useful skills I’d developed in my life,” he says – Sneddon was inspired to make the film by his affection for Bhutan.
”The combination of sophisticated cleverness and worldly simplicity I find quite striking,” he says. ”And it’s a beautiful place, Bhutan. Wherever I went, I thought if you point a camera at anything – the light, the mountains, the trees – this place is just made for a film.”
He wrote, directed and co-produced Arrows Of The Thunder Dragon on a skimpy budget of $340,000.
Just as Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket is in Lao and Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Michael Cody’s Ruin is in Khmer, Sneddon shot his film in the local language of Dzongkha.
He was delighted by the reaction at the festival in Busselton, south of Perth.
”I was very pleased that the audience seemed to get the humour and the emotion,” he says. ”It’s a thinking person’s film.”
Bhutan has been the location for only a handful of films, with the best-known being Tibetan lama Khyentse Norbu’s The Cup and Travellers and Magicians.
Sneddon, who lives in Gembrook in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges, sees filmmaking as an extension of his work as a monk.
”Never for a moment did I lose the want to do good things,” he says. ”Now I’m doing that in a practical way. For me, this film is a presentation of the traditional Buddhist way of life and approach to death.”
Sneddon made such a connection with his Bhutanese crew that he now plans to set up the country’s first film school.
He hopes Arrows of the Thunder Dragon will get an Australian cinema release next year.