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Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey cover image

Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey 2013

Recommended with reservations

Distributed by Good Docs
Produced by Wendy J. N. Lee
Directed by Wendy J. N. Lee
DVD, color, 72 min.

General Adult
Buddhism, global environmentalism, Women, Religion, Himalayas, Tibetan Culture

Date Entered: 11/26/2014

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

The actress Daryl Hannah has participated in numerous documentaries linking global environmental activism to women’s issues and the protection of native cultures. In this film Hannah plays the role of narrator, following 700 activists on a trek across the Himalayas in 2010. On a mission to save an alpine system threatened by global warming, the participants make a vow to protect the threatened habitats they encounter on their arduous and dangerous three-month journey.

The Himalayas are home to the largest collection of glaciers outside of the polar ice caps – hence the idea of a march to save the “3rd Pole.” Pad Yatra in Sanskrit means a pilgrimage. The Buddhist priest Gyalwang Drukpa led the trek as an expression of love and sacrifice for the environment, a key tenet of his faith. Rather than focus on the impact of global warming on the Himalayas – one of the first places, like the North and South Poles, to show the effects of climate change – the documentary mostly tells the story of the trekkers and the sacrifices they have made to make the journey. For all the film’s uplifting and positive messages, it is sometimes difficult to sympathize with the Western participants in the journey. Almost all of them are privileged and white; it doesn’t take too much of an effort to imagine them generating grist for their soirees back in Beverly Hills or Manhattan. The result is to give the documentary the feel of documentary of converts preaching to a very well-heeled choir.

While recounting the story of the privileged, guilt-assuaging Western trekkers, the film also provides a window into Buddhist religion – and the increasing role of nuns, previously excluded, from sacred ceremonies and prayers. The nuns are the central heroes of the trek: tireless, stoic, and hard driving. Immersion in nature is a common feature in Buddhism. The group thus encounters Buddhists on spiritual missions of isolation in caves. Perhaps the most fascinating message in the film is the presence in the Buddhist tradition of an attitude of stewardship over nature rather than one of exploitation, domination and control that some have associated with the Christian tradition.

The visuals are stunning, and when the Western participants stop talking about how much their feet hurt and how hard it is to breathe at such altitudes, the film can be revealing. Even in the remotest regions modern consumer society is evident in seemingly ubiquitous plastic trash. The plastic never completely breaks down and instead enters into the ecosystem as a toxic presence in microscopic particles, poisoning the world’s third largest source of fresh water, just as the world’s oceans now host immense plastic gyres the size of large American states. As the trekkers proceed, they bring a message of environmental threat to the communities they encounter, educating them on the dangers of plastic and the dumping of inorganic materials.