Filmmaker Wendy J.N. Lee’s fascinating debut feature documentary, Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey, is not your typical environmental film. Shot with solar power by Himalayan monk and award-winning cinematographer Ngawang Sodpa, it captures the harrowing adventure of 700 people trekking 450 miles across the remote, treacherous terrain of the Himalayas at altitudes above 17,000 feet. Accompanied by Buddhist spiritual leader H.H. the Gyalwang Drukpa, a champion of environmental causes and gender equality, they spread their unique message of ecological activism by walking on foot, village to village, and showing by example to educate locals on the looming environmental crisis.
In an exclusive interview, Lee talked about what inspired her to make an epic environmental adventure documentary about a glacial region in danger due to global warming, how it evolved from a short into a feature length film, what her sister’s outsider perspective brought to the film, what she learned about herself in the process, her high regard for the Kung Fu Nuns, the amazing footage her cinematographer got despite overwhelming technical challenges, the original music by Derek Zhao and Pilar Díaz, how she hopes the film will encourage others to make a difference, and her next project, Queen of Cups, a comedy set in the Himalayas. Hit the jump to read the interview.
WENDY J.N. LEE: I started off volunteering at the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh (India). In the years that I had been volunteering there, I had noticed so many drastic changes in the area. This is in northern India in the Jammu Kashmir region and so it’s very remote. It’s largely a nomadic region with a very traditional culture and just gorgeous. It’s a life transforming sort of site. What I noticed in those two years of volunteering was it was getting progressively more and more polluted. And then, the challenges of competing with the modern waste were getting heavier and heavier. It was very noticeable. Even within five years, it was noticeable. I signed up for the Eco-Pad Yatra. I had heard about it through Live to Love, the international organization that organized it. I thought, “I have to sign up for this.” I had just graduated from film school. I was so excited to do this trek, and I figured why not make a movie about it because I just got out of school. That’s sort of the genesis of it. That’s how it came together. Of course, I didn’t realize how epic it was going to be until I got there. We didn’t realize we were going to be hit by all these strange weather patterns and emergency rescues, and the severity of the trash problem wasn’t really that apparent until we were on the trip. It snowballed from there.
How did you convince Buddhist spiritual leader Gyalwang Drukpa to participate in your film?
LEE: He actually initiated the trek. It was his idea. It’s a spiritual tradition in the East. Pad Yatra directly translates to a spiritual foot journey in Sanskrit. This is something that was a traditional thing to do, but he had repurposed it to be an environmental message rather than a religious one. We had people participating from all faiths. The region is predominantly Buddhist, and many of them are Drukpa which is the specific lineage that the Gyalwang Drukpa is the head of. There was enormous support from both people who view it as a spiritual goal as well as an environmental goal. You had this amazing mix of people who basically participated in some hope of making the world a better place.
Why was it important to tell this story and to spread awareness about the “3rd Pole,” the glacial region that is in danger due to global warming?
LEE: This region is very, very remote. It’s this beautiful snapshot of what’s happening environmentally. Within the last 20 years, it’s gone from minimal contact with the developed world to being a part of it. First of all, it’s a little microcosm where you can see all the changes happening there rapidly. Secondly, it’s so remote that it’s such an underreported part of the world. There are not that many people who shoot up there. It’s at high altitude. It’s not easy to be there. It felt like there was such a lack of stories coming out from that part of the world. Also, I was born and raised in L.A. As a Westerner, I was really inspired by spending time with the people in Ladakh. It felt like these were stories that needed to be shared and that weren’t already being shared. There’s just not that much reporting there that’s being done. When something is that beautiful and that precious, you want to share it with other people. It really felt like that.
LEE: Not particularly. Our cinematographer was a local Ladakhi monk from the area. It felt very much like one of our own. People accepted us as one of their own very much so. Also, we were with His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, and he had the full support of the local government as well. Everything in that regard was done with everyone’s support.
How did Michelle Yeoh and Daryl Hannah become involved as executive producer and narrator respectively?
LEE: Michelle Yeoh is a Global Ambassador for Live to Love International and she’s been very involved with the many humanitarian projects of the organization, but especially the Pad Yatra. She’s especially concerned with the environmental issues and animal preservation projects in Malaysia and throughout Asia, so it seemed like a natural progression. She came on as Executive Producer towards the tail end of the making of the film to help us promote it. She’s been a huge supporter and a champion for the cause. Also, a big running theme in the film is gender equality and women’s empowerment. Some of the characters in the film are the Kung Fu Nuns, these local Buddhist nuns. They’re learning Kung Fu and they’re doing it as an example of female leadership for the community. Michelle Yeoh is also this amazing Kung Fu expert so it’s great to see them all together and interacting. There’s just a lot of overlap with her causes and the film and the themes in the film.
And then, with Daryl Hannah, she’s an active champion of the environmental cause. I was so excited to work with her when she agreed to do it. I admire her on so many levels, not just for her acting career, but for her recent work and the environmentalism. I learned a lot from her in the short time we spent together working on the film. That was a huge honor. Our Associate Producer approached Daryl. In the case of Michelle, we met when we were in post-production and we slowly became friends over time.
You mentioned the Kung Fu Nuns who appear in the film. What are your impressions of them?
LEE: I love these nuns. They are incredible. The last time I was in Nepal, they were breaking bricks with their bare hands. The thing is they’re really confident. The Kung Fu has really served to boost their confidence and this is trickling through the whole community. They now patrol their own grounds. They are their own security squad. They deter burglars from the nunnery. They’ve got all the villagers proactive. I think proactive is a great word. They’re just really proactive. If there was a burglary, especially in that region which is largely underdeveloped, you don’t necessarily take it upon yourself to take matters into your own hands. But these nuns patrol with (Kung Fu) sticks. At the same time, they run their own website. They’re very tech savvy. They take lessons in multiple languages so they’re getting this modern education and at the same time they’re really independent and very kind. I have this stereotype of nuns just hanging back and doing prayers all the time. When we see Buddhist nuns on TV, they’re just making candles and praying. But these nuns, they’re incredible. They’re all very young and there’s a huge waiting list to become one. There’s a two-year waiting list right now. They join to get their modern education and their independence and then this modern skill set. They’re really an incredible bunch of women.
LEE: It’s funny. My sister and I are very close and we share a very similar point of view. It just seemed right. We signed up for the trip together. It changed both of our lives. We were side by side for a lot of it. It just made sense. She plays the fish out of water who doesn’t know quite what she signed up for until she gets there, and that was very much my experience as well. It just seemed like an organic choice to make and we needed it. When we extended the film, it seemed right. Also, I think it’s interesting to have her in there, because in most films about the Himalayas, you see really rugged, outdoorsy people. You don’t expect to see a young corporate attorney who was a sorority girl out there doing it. I also thought it was an interesting contrast to what we already see. A lot of these adventures out there aren’t necessarily limited to outdoorsy people. You can be any type of person and still be really affected by this region.
Was the film always intended for a Western audience? Was that important in order to reach the widest possible audience and for them to find it accessible?
LEE: Yes. I would say yes, absolutely, and that’s largely because that’s where I come from. I come from L.A. I definitely wanted to make an example of that region for us to see and to experience and to laugh about even. I find a lot of environmental films can be very daunting and overwhelming. It can be almost discouraging how dire some of these situations are. I did want to share it here back at home in a light that people maybe haven’t quite seen and something a little bit more playful and humored and more uplifting than what we’re used to seeing. I get very jaded by the environmental message because I grew up listening to environmental stuff, and I never identified with being an environmentalist until this trip. I very much wanted to share that at home.
That said, our very first screening was at BAFTA in London and there was a Drukpa monk, Drupon Ngawang, from Bhutan who had come. He was traveling with His Holiness on that trek. He pulled me aside after the film. He barely speaks English, and he told me, “Wendy, I think you made this film for me.” I was so shocked because I think the locals in the Himalayas really have taken it to heart, and they view the film as a symbol of their own accomplishments out there, and so, what they’re doing. They feel really recognized. Actually, we have ten awards and several of those awards are on display in the Himalayas at different monasteries and nunneries and schools. My intention was to share this message back at home, but it has also definitely connected with the people there, and they feel very much recognized for what they’re trying to do. I’m glad it’s appealing to all different kinds of people.
Your film has been very successful in reaching a global audience and has screened at film festivals around the world.
LEE: It is a little bit surprising. It screens very well. We’ve screened in Iceland, in Mexico, in Malaysia, all corners of the world, and we tend to get a very age diverse group of people, too. That’s been a very pleasant surprise.
This was a difficult shoot and you had to deal with high altitudes, sub-zero temperatures, and treacherous terrain. What were some of the biggest challenges or surprises you personally encountered while making this?
LEE: It’s really funny. It was so physical. I had just come out of USC Film School thinking about how awesome I was and I was so arrogant. When I got there, I was just so humbled by the physically strenuous difficulties. I was just telling someone a story about how there was one pass that my knees gave out and I was literally dragging my legs up every step. I was dragging my legs from my thighs, from my hips. It was the strangest sensation. I was just dragging my ankles. It was like my feet wouldn’t work, so I was just dragging myself up. I kept telling myself not to stop or else I’d never get up again. It was just moments like that. I was sick. I had diarrhea at that point. My limbs, my body was aching. And then, the strangest thing was I got to the top of the mountain finally and all the pain went away. I actually ran back down the other side of the pass. There’s so much to learn about what you’re capable of because I realized how much that pain was mental. I had to overcome that and just push through. The pure physicality of it was something that I did not anticipate, because I trained and I’m pretty athletic. There were little things like that, and at a certain point, you realize your physical limitations have so much to do with your mind and all this stuff. I had to grow up in a very short period of time and learn to deal with my aches and pains and keep pushing forward.
Is there anything you wish you’d known on day one?
LEE: I’m almost glad I didn’t know anything on day one (laughs) because my naivete is what got me there. Had I known, I may have chickened out. I didn’t realize how cold it was going to be, how high it was going to be, so I’m really glad I didn’t know because it was the adventure of a lifetime.
Can you talk about the contributions of your Director of Photography Ngawang Sodpa and how you shot your documentary using solar power because there was not enough electricity to rely on hard drives?
LEE: He’s amazing. He was doing it from the heart. He was not paid or anything. He was really doing this from his heart in the sense that he just wanted to share this experience with other people and make sure that they could see it. He often trekked a day and a half in advance just to get one shot from an adjacent mountain and then he would trek back. He did this continuously. He probably did three or four times the distance that the rest of us did. He was so incredible. For him, it was a spiritual practice, I guess you could say. He was so devoted to the project and he’s also very humble. His English is not great. I had known him for a few years prior, so we would communicate a lot through body language and he just understood. But he needed very little direction from me. In fact, I barely saw him sometimes during the day because he was just off and running. And then, because we were using solar power, it was also frustrating because there were days where we could only shoot for a few minutes a day. If it was cloudy, we didn’t have much power the next day. And then, the temperature would drop. When temperatures drop, your batteries stop working. There were so many shots he was describing to me that he’d missed. His camera would just go dead. He’d be in the middle of a shot and it would turn off. That was something that we just dealt with. I think both of us were just really grateful that there was anything at all to show for it. It’s really funny because the last time I saw him in Nepal, he had won this award for cinematography, and I said, “Congratulations on your award,” and he said, “Oh no, it wasn’t me. It was the blessings and it’s because of this wonderful movie,” and then he congratulated me and I said the same thing to him. We were both laughing about it because we both feel like the project was so much bigger than us.
LEE: That’s true. We got back and we had all this beautiful footage, but we didn’t have a lot of it because of the technical reasons we were just talking about. So, there wasn’t a lot of footage. And then, it was a humble, modest intention at first. We were going to make a short. The thing is that people really started to take to it, and so the short got longer and then a little longer. Finally, by the time the film was 20 minutes long, I flew it to Nepal to show the nuns. I screened it for 500 nuns just to make sure we got their thumbs up and they felt like it was accurate and everything and that it was okay with them. The response was overwhelming, and I was inundated by so many people who said, “Can we please make it a longer film, a real film?” and I really took that to heart. We came back and we did another pass on the footage. We just kept fanning it out and fanning it out and making it longer and incorporating more of the environmental message, and that’s how it evolved over time.
How does the final film compare to what you originally envisioned?
LEE: Oh, that’s a great question. That’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that. That’s wonderful. I would say that it feels just as I had hoped it would feel emotionally because the film really does capture how we felt on the trip. But, in terms of the structure and the characters and the things that happened, it’s so hard. I’m an obsessive preparer so I’ll script it out. My documentary is all scripted out like it’s a scripted film. I’ll write out every scene, and then once I get there, I never know what I’m going to get. In this case, it deviated so much so that it wasn’t what I anticipated. From a logistical point of view, it’s completely different than what I thought. But emotionally, I really do feel like it accurately captures how we felt on the trip.
The film’s music is both traditional and modern and really compliments the story that you’re telling. Can you talk about Pilar Díaz and Derek Zhao’s contributions to the tone of the film?
LEE: Absolutely. I think they’re both brilliant. Derek Zhao is this child prodigy type and he composed for the Beijing Opera I believe for a while. He had just graduated as an undergraduate when he took on this film. He had already scored a number of movies. He has the more traditional approach. And then, Pilar Díaz is a local indie punk folk musician. She was the lead singer for this amazing pop band called Los Abandoned, and they broke up and she went solo. We actually collaborate together on almost every one of my films. She brings to it this edgier, more modern, kind of girlie but kickass vibe. Those are her vocals singing over the opening scene. The two of them work very well together and we’re all friends. It seemed appropriate because there is a contrast between we have the more traditional sounds of that area but it’s totally something that’s being refurbished into a new understanding.
LEE: Yes, that I’m very, very humbled. It was my first feature. I think actually making a film is a very humbling experience to begin with, but to do it in the middle of the Himalayas was something that completely changed the way I view filmmaking as a craft. I would say I was just deeply humbled by the entire experience.
The Pad Yatra is a walking pilgrimage across the Himalayas designed to raise awareness and inspire a new generation of environmentalism. In your opinion, what makes this unorthodox way of spreading a modern message so powerful?
LEE: I think it’s the fact that we were showing by example. Many of these areas may have heard this message before, but they don’t work. I had just met someone who said that he went through the Himalayas putting up signs about not littering, but they all got torn down and became trash themselves. The thing about this trip is, the 800 pounds of trash and litter, we carried out all that on our backs in bags. There’s something about seeing that. When the villagers saw us come at great peril in many cases and at our own danger and carry out that plastic in a bag, it just showed them how much we cared. It wasn’t a lecture. It wasn’t someone telling them what to do. It was someone showing them, and that speaks so much more effectively to people than just telling them. Actually, not that much was said. We would do local education at the villages, but that was maybe just for a little bit of the time. The rest of the time was spent showing them and them seeing what we were doing which transcends language, which transcends a lot of things. I think the visual symbol of it and the epic nature and proving how much we care was really the magic piece of the whole Pad Yatra.
One of the underlying themes that really resonated with me was the importance of renewing ancient wisdom for a modern context through example. What do you hope will resonate with audiences when they see your film?
LEE: First and foremost, I hope that they enjoy the movie, and I hope that they find it an uplifting and enjoyable movie. I think that it’s very, very important for something like an environmental cause that is otherwise wrapped up in a lot of cynicism and gloom and doom. I hope people walk away from the movie theater feeling good. That’s very important to me. But as far as the actual issues, this is not necessarily a science documentary. This is not An Inconvenient Truth and there are no charts or graphs. There’s no list of things for you to do when you leave the theater. But what I do hope people get out of it is they feel like what they do does make a difference, that they can make a difference, and that it is not only fun but very fulfilling to make a difference and to feel encouraged. That’s my hope. I do think that’s something that sets the film apart from a lot of conventional social issues documentaries.
In what ways do you feel this film expands the documentary form?
LEE: That’s a great question. I went through USC doing the doc program and my interest is largely in fiction narrative films. I feel like this film was a really fun opportunity to structure it more as a story than as a talking heads documentary and to walk away having had a complete emotional experience. For me, that’s really fun to have a film that’s based on themes rather than a lot of interviews, for example. I hope that people feel like they’re being taken for a ride and that they’re going on a ride by watching the film. That was a very fun piece of making the film. A lot of creativity went into the film in terms of making it feel like an experience. I hope that it is an experiential film.
The Pad Yatra triggered an unprecedented environmental movement that is now inspiring the rest of the world. Were you surprised that a 450-mile trek across the Himalayas, one of the most remote areas of the world, would have such a powerful impact?
LEE: It is so unexpected. It’s the last place you would expect it because they care so much. It’s almost shocking. They broke the Guinness World Record for Tree Planting. At the end of the film, they planted 50,000 trees in half an hour as a way to show people, “Look how much we care.” Last year, last October I believe, they planted another 100,000 trees to break their own record. It’s not like a couple people show up. It’s like tens of thousands of people are coming to these things and these people don’t live close together. People are walking for days to get to these events. It’s so inspiring to think that people care out there. If they can do it there, then truly we can do a little bit of something here.
What are you working on next?
LEE: Next, it’s a little switch of gears. I’m working on a fiction narrative feature project. It’s a little bit too early to talk about it. It’s still being written, but part of it does take place in the Himalayas and it is a comedy. So there’ll probably be some overlap there. It’s called Queen of Cups. I used to suffer from very severe depression and it wasn’t until I started traveling to the Himalayas that I actually started to recover a little bit from it. It’s one of the reasons I keep returning to that region. The film is based loosely on that experience.