Movies at the Mudd: “Wheel of Time

Corey Lehnert

My decision to review a film by the German director Werner Herzog did not come without some hesitation, as I knew doing so would mean that under the guise of journalistic integrity I would be unable to review another Herzog film for at least three more issues.
This was difficult because Herzog has crafted around 50 films – the majority of which are considered exceptionally unique and several of which are available at the Mudd Library.
Choosing his 2003 documentary of a Buddhist initiation ceremony, “Wheel of Time,” I found myself with another problem: that of separating the truth from the fiction inherent in his work.
Herzog’s documentary “Wheel of Time” offers an intimate look at the 2002 Kalachakra Initiation ceremony in Bodh Gaya, India, a Buddhist ceremony that aims to instill, according to Herzog, “the seed of enlightenment which lays dormant in all living beings.”
Hundreds of thousands of monks and lay practitioners flock to the ceremony, often traveling thousands of miles and often traversing the distance on foot. They come to hear the teachings of venerated Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama, and to view an intricate sand painting known as a sand mandala that symbolizes the impermanence of material things.
Before I begin ranting about the way in which Herzog plays with truth in his work, however, I must say that this film is engrossing regardless of what one intends to get out of it. Herzog takes the audience into the rituals comprising the ceremony with minimal narration, preferring broad and inquisitive camerawork that mirrors that of a wide-eyed outsider to a foreign land. When Herzog does narrate we are treated to lucid insights on the magnitude of devotion the practitioners bring to the faith.
Thanks to Herzog’s narrative and cinematic style, however, it is difficult to take away any objective knowledge regarding the Buddhist faith from the work. Through the lens we see countless practitioners from all walks of life, but the only ones that Herzog speaks to – the Dalai Lama, the monk who traveled 3,000 miles to the ceremony by prostrations, the schoolteacher imprisoned for 38 years for protesting for a free Tibet – are of near-mythological status. When all was said and done, I felt more as if I’d watched a movie about some magical civilization rather than a documentary piece.
Coming from a director who regularly uses documentary footage in his science fiction films, it’s hard to view this as unintentional. Rather, it seems more likely that Herzog’s film is a reflection of the Buddhist notion that delusion blinds us to truth.
Overall, “Wheel of Time” is an interesting and expansive, if not a delusional, look at practitioners of the Buddhist faith. What the documentary lacks in truth it makes up for in mystic beauty.”Wheel of Time.” Directed by Werner Herzog. Not Rated.