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Berkeley Docmaker Meditates On Film and Vice Versa
by Bruce Coughran
The metaphorical as well as literal gate to relaxation and transcendence in Berkeley. photo: E. Herzog
When Berkeley-based documentary filmmaker Edwin Herzog started meditating at the Berkeley Zen Center, he had no idea that it might become the subject of a documentary. “Sitting motionless for 40 minutes at a stretch, staring at the wall, seemed the very definition of un-cinematic,” he told me. But last month Herzog finished “Old Plum Mountain: The Berkeley Zen Center, Life inside the Gate,” a full-length documentary that is generating buzz both within and outside of the Buddhist community, both here and abroad.
As part of his masters thesis, as a theater major at San Francisco State, Herzog made a documentary about the historic 1934 San Francisco Longshoremen’s strike that was broadcast on the public television station KQED. After graduation, he produced and hosted a half-hour monthly program on the public television station KCFM (in San Mateo) about unions and labor in the Bay Area. “That led to a state-wide show called ‘California Working’ and then a national show called ‘We Do the Work’ which was the only national show on labor and labor issues at the time.”
In the mid 1990s Ed started doing freelance documentaries on labor issues, mostly for labor unions. He was asked to become an in-house TV production for a union, and then went on to manage all communications at various labor unions. All the while he continued to do short documentary films, mostly under contract for labor unions.
Looking to deepen his spiritual life, Ed started meditating in 1999. He began to study Buddhism, at first with the Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese teacher based in Southern California. When he looked for something closer to home, he found the Berkeley Zen Center, founded in 1967 by “Sojun” Mel Weitsman, a close disciple of the influential Zen Buddhist master, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who came to San Francisco from Japan in the 1960s.
“At some point the board of directors approached me [about] doing a history of the Berkeley Zen Center. [They] asked me if I wanted to put together a proposal,” Herzog explained. “I was thrilled and drafted a proposal but the project I proposed was much bigger than they had envisioned. In the end, they gave me access. And that was invaluable.”
A group of Zen practitioners in prayer didn't seem at first like a striking visual image to filmmaker Edwin Herzog. photo: E. Herzog
“In my work, I focus on the visuals, and when I started studying at Berkeley Zen Center I was struck by the beauty of the ceremonies and rituals, the light in the zendo [meditation hall], the early mornings, the working, chanting, cooking and serving meals in the ritual way. I really wanted to capture that on film.” He began fundraising and raised enough money to do an extended interview with the founding teacher, Sojun Mel Weisman.
“After that first interview, which was wonderful, I realized that I really wanted to tell the story of the Berkeley Zen Center from a perspective of an ordinary member. I guess it is my labor background, wanting to tell the story not just of the people in robes, but the way it was for the average person who practices meditation there.” He began filming other activities: ceremonies, ritual meals, meditation retreats, chanting and work practice, all while doing his regular job at the labor union. “At the end, I had over 75 hours of footage, and it was hard to find the time to deal with it.”
A couple of years ago Ed resigned his position at the labor union and decided to devote full time to completing the documentary, which took another two years. “I had a great challenge. Portraying the inner journey that people go on was pretty impossible. My background with labor documentaries focused on dramatic events: strikes, uprisings.”
He had to find a way to show why people would devote their time to long periods of sitting, staring at a wall, and finding that an exultant experience. In the end Herzog went back to what attracted him in the first place: the visual beauty of the activities and ceremonies.
“I wanted it to be visual—to find a way to show that and not bore people to tears. When I started organizing the material along those lines, a structure started to emerge. I found I had little ‘chapters’ that were organized around certain activities: chanting, cooking and serving meals, working, etc.”
No walk in the park, zen meditation can involve up to eight hours a day facing a wall policed by the roshi, or master, with his eponymous stick—to hit you if you doze—although American Zen, not surprisingly, is a bit more easy going. photo: E. Herzog
“In the end I had to raise more money to finish the film. We did some more shooting and I hired an editor, Bob Laird—who knew nothing about the film or the subject matter—to look at it with fresh eyes. He ended up asking questions like, “Who is this ‘Dogen’ character everyone talks about?” (A: Dogen was the 13th century Japanese monk who founded the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, of which Berkeley Zen Center is a part.)
Laird did some final interviews and “that became the key to understanding what was unique about this particular brand of Zen Buddhism. [It] turned out to be the key to the narrative," Herzog said. "What is it about these activates cooking, working, chanting, etc., that was unique and special?" he wondered rhetorically. "It brought the documentary all together.”
“When we finished there was a private showing at Berkeley Zen Center, and people were very appreciative.” The filmmakers are currently looking for a place to have a formal public showing in Berkeley or San Francisco, which have a notably large population of Zen practitioners, as well as meditators in general, and then will be starting on the festival circuit.
“We have had interest from the Buddhist Film Festival and we are looking at other festivals. We see people with interest in Buddhism as our first audience but obviously we hope that the film will speak to a wider audience, people who have no familiarity or particular interest in Buddhism. We are looking at trying to get a screening on public television as well as distributing DVDs ourselves. There has been a lot of interest from libraries and universities.”
In fact, the film is currently being translated for subtitling in Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Korean because “We want to show people what American Zen looks like,” Herzog explained. There are few in-depth depictions of how Buddhism is practiced in America, which is quite different from other countries. “Because of the interest from other countries in finding out about this particularly American form of Buddhism, we expect a lot of international interest.”
Herzog is excited to have the film finally finished and showing to audiences. He is continuing to work on other documentary projects, including one on “Engaged Buddhism,” the movement to effect social change while being informed by a Buddhist perspective (“finding ways to BE peace, while working for peace”), that has become international in scope.
Although he has not given up on making documentaries on contract for others, he was glad to finally complete a full-length documentary on his own.
“I had been doing labor documentaries for other organizations for a long time. But this documentary was my voice speaking, just mine. That was important to me. And for me to do that was a new experience. Sure, I did show it to people. I wanted to see what people thought about it. But in the end it was my decision. I took some things out, and I left some things in. But that decision was my decision to make.”
“I think that’s what filmmakers do. They make that decision. This is what excites me. This is what appeals to me, about this subject, about what I am doing. This is why I want to do it.” Indeed, Ed Herzog's passion for meditation as practiced in his hometown of Berkeley became the inspiration for a film that may reach around the world.
After a long stint in Los Angeles, film/theater writer/director Bruce Coughran is currently working out of Berkeley.
Posted on Jun 28, 2011 - 02:25 PM