The fourth annual EPOS International Art Film Festival in Tel Aviv was showcasing a film this week made by two Jews about a Mormon dedicated to preserving Buddhist texts.
The documentary, Digital Dharma, which was directed by Manayunk-based Dafna Yachin and co-written by her longtime writing partner, Arthur Fischman, was being shown at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Philadelphia residents may be most familiar with the pair’s work for the Franklin Institute, the Liberty Medal and Sprout Network, as well as a multitude of advertising and marketing campaigns — which seems a little incongruous with the decidedly non-commercial Digital Dharma, which brings to light the 50-year quest of E. Gene Smith to preserve thousands of Sanskrit and Tibetan texts in danger of disappearing forever due to the forces of nature and politics.
Yachin explains that her production company, Lunchbox, is “a hybrid — we do the marketing and advertising to keep alive” in order to pursue projects like Digital Dharma.
Smith seemed predestined to his pursuit. He took up learning Sanskrit and Tibetan as a way to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. As a result of his knowledge of Tibetan, he was selected to teach English to Deshung Ripoche, one of the most learned lamas to escape Tibet under Chinese rule. As Smith learned more about the Tibetan people and culture from Deshung, he received a Ford Foundation grant to study in Southeast Asia, which led to his decades-long work with the Library of Congress to save the written history of Tibet by purchasing works with the monies from the landmark Food For Peace program initiated under the Eisenhower administration.
As Yachin deftly shows, Smith worked for so long at preservation that he went from doing so with a manual typewriter to delivering 12,000 digitized texts to a lama via a Mac Mini.
Yachin was drawn to Smith’s efforts to preserve Tibetan culture and history from the moment they met in 2006. “As a first-generation American,” this daughter of an Israeli freedom fighter says, “cultural preservation is so important to me — it has given me a greater appreciation for people who have to live in diaspora and yet still continue their traditions.” She notes that the interest went both ways: “The Dalai Lama himself wanted to know how the Jews were able to keep their religion during the Diaspora” as a point of reference for doing the same with his people.
Even though the film is finished, her work to promote Smith’s cause continues. The film’s website features a link to donate to Smith’s organization, the Cambridge, Mass.-based Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, and there is pride and admiration in her voice as she mentions that Smith’s dream of having the center’s entire library become a digital open access forum will be realized this year.
And what will Yachin do as an encore to a film about a man dedicated to peace and preservation? She and Fischman are flying to Los Angeles to pitch a series on boxing.