.Buddhist Bay Area: Film showings stretch over months at San Rafael festival

Buddhism: What does this word bring to mind?

If the answer is thoughts of meditation, mindfulness, monks and monasteries, then the imagery is correct, though it may be incomplete. The truth is, even in the Bay Area, where diversity, acceptance and cultural curiosity abound, there may still be a shroud of mystery surrounding the topic of Buddhism.

“Buddha means ‘The Awakened One’—that’s all it means,” explained Gaetano Kazuo Maida, founder and executive director of both the International Buddhist Film Festival and the Buddhist Film Foundation. “Very famously, the Buddha was once asked by a king: ‘Are you a god? A saint? What are you?’ And Buddha simply said to the king, ‘I am awake.’”

“That spirit is not limited to Buddhism, but has been identified in gatherings of people in any community,” said Maida.

Through the upcoming International Buddhist Film Festival Spotlight Series, the Marin community is offered an opportunity to gather at San Rafael’s Smith Rafael Film Center where, over the coming months, feature films pertaining to Buddhism, its people and its practices will play for local audiences.

“We use film as a medium because some folks are maybe a little hesitant to knock on the door of a Buddhist temple,” explained Maida. “Maybe it looks intimidating or doesn’t afford a direct integration into their lives. But to go to a movie is very simple. We all know how to arrive at a movie theater with a bag of popcorn in a room full of strangers in the dark to watch something special. That’s why we use film.”

These showings will offer an entertaining and approachable angle to develop a deeper perspective on elements of Buddhism, as seen through the lens of a camera. Showings will also include special guest attendees such as the directors of each film, prominent figures of the Buddhist community and, of course, the festival founder himself, Maida.

Maida grew up in a half-Japanese and half-Sicilian home in what he described as “a progressive activist family and community that had nothing to do with religion and spirituality.” In fact, Maida’s interest in Buddhism did not begin until his father gifted him a book, Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. With that, a lifelong interest was sparked and the journey toward founding the International Buddhist Film Festival began.

“I escaped New York many years ago in the ’60s,” said Maida. “I spent several years in the Bay Area doing the things that you’d expect in the ’60s—worked for Rolling Stone for a bit, had a band… but I was young and uncomfortable with the burgeoning drug culture, so I left back for the East Coast.”

At this juncture of his life, Maida put his passion for film and photography on the back burner to focus instead on the wellbeing and security of his family. Time passed, his daughter grew up and graduated, and he was able to return his attention to the realm of photojournalism and filmmaking.

“While in New York, the circles I participated in included some of the more interesting American Buddhist personalities,” explained Maida. “Around 1990, we concluded there was a missing piece in that arena: a magazine. So, we set out to start a national independent nonprofit Buddhist magazine.”

The magazine, Tricycle, was first published in May of 1991 and is still in production. Following the success of Tricycle, Maida returned to the West Coast and, while living in Berkeley in 2000, redirected his energy toward founding a Buddhist nonprofit for film. Then, in 2003, the opportunity to host the inaugural International Buddhist Film Festival presented itself.

“The first festival was 20 years ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,” said Maida. “It was a wonderful experience and in the middle of the film community—obviously, since we were in LA. We had some very interesting people participate, and it was a wonderful beginning.”

“But we didn’t understand what we had done,” continued Maida. “We had set out to fill a hole in the festival arena. But what we thought was going to be a local event immediately turned into an invitation to Washington, DC, to present at the Smithsonian in 2004…then the invites came from all over the world: Barcelona, Singapore, London, Mexico City (where 50,000 people showed up for the opening celebration) and Vancouver.”

With the Buddhist Film Festival’s immediate, obvious and staggering popularity, Maida made the decision to continue the event and even expand upon it. The Bay Area, he asserted, was the perfect place to operate from, partly due to its historical roots in Buddhism.

“Being here in the Bay Area is, for us, my wife and I and the organization as well—it’s the ideal place to be,” said Maida. “It’s a very vibrant and diverse region in terms of Buddhist activity so, for us, it’s very natural.”

Though the upcoming film festival is centered on concepts of Buddhism, the event is open to any who wish to attend, enjoy the atmosphere and learn a thing or two from the silver screen.

“None of these films are only for Buddhists or only for Tibetans—they’re well-made feature-length films for everyone,” said Maida. “And the [Smith] Rafael Film Center has always been a good supporter of us, and it is in my opinion that they are the finest theater in terms of presentation quality in the Bay Area….it is a pleasure to watch a film there.”

The lineup for the 2023 International Buddhist Film Festival is as follows: Ganden: A Joyful Land on Sunday, April 30; Geshe Wangyal With Blessing of the Three Jewels on Sunday, May 21; Into the Night: Portraits of Life and Death (Part Two) on Sunday, June 18; and Dark Red Forest on Sunday, Sept. 17.

“When we choose our films, what we’re looking for is a good film,” said Maida. “But we’re also looking for a clear passion for seeking the path of compassion.”

Each showing will include an opportunity to interact with special guests, such as the director of each film (including Helen Whitney, an Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, and Rosemary Rawcliffe, an Emmy Award-winning producer and director). Other notable figures in the Buddhist community will also attend showings, such as the president of Tibet House US, Robert Thurman, and Chodo Robert Campbell Sensei and Koshin Paley Ellison Sensei, founders of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care.

All screenings for the International Buddhist Film Festival Spotlight Series will take place at the Smith Rafael Film Center, located at 1118 4th St. in San Rafael. For more information or to pre-purchase tickets, visit rafaelfilm.cafilm.org.

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