Driving a wedge into popular thinking about Tibet, Luc Schaedler tells the amazing story of a man who did the same. Gendun Choephel was a Tibetan Buddhist monk in the early twentieth century. Well before the Chinese occupation, during a time of deep religious conservatism and national isolation, he formed a conviction about the importance of Tibet's engagement with the world and modernity. With this impetus, he undertook extended travels throughout Tibet, India, and Sri Lanka, seeking experiences and conducting research to construct a historical vision of a more internationally engaged Tibet. Unearthing forgotten texts demonstrating past military engagements with China, and publishing a groundbreaking newspaper from India for a widely dispersed Tibetan diaspora, Choephel sealed his own tragic fate of persecution and imprisonment by the Chinese.
Today, modern Tibetans still respond to the relevance of his vision, which upends the Western notion of Tibet as a sacred zone, separate from history. Schaedler's evocative filmmaking does honor to his complex subject, tracing the journeys of Choephel (incidentally, a hard-drinking, sexually voracious lover of life) via exquisite archival footage, interviews with contemporaries, and poignant modern views of the settings of his life, now seemingly muted by Choephel's absence. Indeed, the absent monk is a powerful presence in this resurrection of his unique story.