Photos by Ananta Vrindavana Das.
The second in the “Spiritual Embassies of the World” film series, entitled “Sri Vrindavana Dhama, India” has received its premiere in London, England.
The first screening, on December 14th, was shown to a Bhakti Vriksha congregational group at the beautiful 17th century Swiss Church in Covent Garden.
The second screening took place on December 18th at the Radha Krishna Temple on Soho St. as part of an event put on by congregational chanting group Kirtan London.
“Spiritual Embassies” is an ambitious project which aims to create documentary films about at least 108 temples around the world established by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada or his followers.
Russian film student Shaktyavesha Avatar Das, who joined ISKCON around five years ago and now lives in London, was inspired to begin the series when he read a letter written by Srila Prabhupada to his disciple Bhagavan on December 18th, 1970:
“The more we open branches, the more I feel encouraged. These branches are like the oasis in a vast desert. In the desert there is no water, but occasionally if one is fortunate he may come in contact with an oasis and he is saved. Similarly in this material world we are drying up due to lack of spiritual knowledge. Our ISKCON centers are meant to give relief to the dried up conditioned souls who are searching after the nectar of joyful life.”
A common sight in Vrindavana, a tree inscribed with the name of Sri Radha
Reading the letter, Shaktyavesha Avatar came up with his own metaphor, comparing ISKCON’s centers in different countries to spiritual embassies where one can learn how to get visas to the spiritual world. He also planned for each film in his series to not only focus on a particular “embassy” but also on a certain aspect of Krishna consciousness.
Shaktyavesha, who got his Master’s Degree in film production at the Royal Holloway University of London and worked on a dissertation about cinema and religion, shot his first film in the “Spiritual Embassies” series in 2010 at the rural community of New Vraja Dhama, Hungary.
Devotees on the beautiful 660-acre farm grow all their own fruit and vegetables, and have ten times as much grain as they need and seven times as much honey, all naturally produced on site. With its own reed-bed waste treatment system and a water well for each family, the community exemplifies the Krishna conscious principle of simple living, high thinking.
Shaktyavesha Avatar’s 30-minute film shows lush footage of the community, with its trees and rolling pastures, that infuses the viewer with peace. Throughout the film, we learn about the community’s projects and how it is run, and hear from devotees whose lives changed when they moved to New Vraja Dhama.
A sadhu studies the scriptures in Vrindavana
Even during his short time there, Shaktyavesha went on his own spiritual and filmmaking journey.
“We spent seven or ten days there, and every single day gave a little revelation,” he says. “It was not just diving into japa and reading and seeing wonderful sites, but also experiencing something new in filmmaking. This time it was connected to Krishna, and I immediately felt so much more bliss doing it.”
The footage was then edited by filmmaker Barnaby Booth, after which Shaktyavesha Avatar posted the finished film to Youtube, where it was viewed by over three and a half thousand people.
"Without Barnaby and his expert supervision, this would never have happened," says Shaktyavesha.
Feeling inspired, he next travelled to Vrindavana, Lord Krishna’s birthplace in India, to film his next documentary in the “Spiritual Embassies” series -- also to be edited by Barnaby Booth.
Filmed over three weeks during the sacred month of Kartika, it follows the personal journey of professional British theater and film actor John Gould. Nonplussed by more experienced actors and West End stars telling him that being a successful actor wouldn’t make him happy, he began to search. After visiting ISKCON’s Bhaktivedanta Manor near London and staying there for several months, he decided to travel to Vrindavana.
Devotees on Parikrama with Indradyumna Swami
“The film shows the journey and internal transformation of someone completely new to Vrindavana,” says Shaktyavesha Avatar. “We see how staying in Vrindavana transforms his heart. And he shares his realizations about how lots of his previously held conceptions were broken down, until finally he had to surrender, and then Vrindavana revealed itself to him.”
The documentary also spends time with other people visiting Vrindavana, and shows candid street scenes and shots while on pilgrimage and in temples.
“Vrindavana affects you so much,” Shaktyavesha Avatar says. “I wanted to capture every single little corner and every single sunrise of this beautiful, spiritual place.”
To Shaktyavesha, it felt as if Krishna was directing him from within, telling him what to film. One of the most memorable highlights for him was the sea of devotees offering their Kartika lamps at ISKCON’s Krishna-Balarama Mandir.“It was an absolutely heart-taking experience,” he says. “In the West, as soon as people see a camera, they switch on a completely different character. But in Vrindavana, it’s different. Someone is offering a candle, and you put a camera right in front of their face, and they couldn’t care less. They’re just who they are, devotees serving the Lord.”
Shaktyavesa Avatara Das
Shaktyavesha Avatar hopes that, in showing Vrindavana through the eyes of John Gould, the film will help other searchers in their own journey
“We hope that people can relate to the film, and to his story,” he says.
With its premiere now behind it, Spiritual Embassies of the World: Sri Vrindavana Dhama is expected to receive several more screenings at Bhaktivedanta Manor and at Krishna Conscious Societies at Universities throughout London. It is also viewable on Youtube and will be distributed locally on DVD at ISKCON temples and Kirtan London events.
Next, Shaktyavesha Avatar hopes to work on a shorter film about Sacinandana Swami’s Croatian Holy Name retreats. Work on further films in the “Spiritual Embassy” series will continue in around a year from now, when Laurynas Bolnis, Creative Director of BRR Films returns from a European tour with footage from various temples
“We’d like to see a film academy established or at least some film courses so that we can share this skill and encourage many more devotees to travel around and make films about different ISKCON centers,” says Shaktyavesha Avatar. “Eventually, we hope to offer a garland of 108 films about the spiritual embassies of the world to Srila Prabhupada.”
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