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Large and Lovely 

A film about a tent city on a dusty plain. No, it's not Burning Man.

Wednesday, Dec 8 2004
At first blush, it sounds like Burning Man: A temporary city springs up on a dusty plain, complete with its own Department of Works. Lured by the promise of spiritual renewal, surprising numbers of people swarm to the tent metropolis, set up bright temples, and make huge, ornate pieces of art. Firsthand accounts call it beautiful, joyous, and bizarre. But if the two events sound similar, India's Kumbh Mela is the mountain to Burning Man's molehill in size as well as significance. Held once every 12 years, Kumbh Mela is the world's oldest and largest gathering, a Hindu pilgrimage whose participants number up to 70 million. Yet it's little known outside of India.

Filmmakers Nick Day and Maurizio Benazzo had heard about it, though, and wanted to share. Setting out for Allahabad with a documentary crew, they came home with footage of ecstatic sadhus (holy men) with flowers in their hair, throngs of pilgrims rushing into the region's sacred rivers, and the Dalai Lama's press conference. The sheer number of people was hard to capture: Even using a camera's extreme long shot, only a few thousand of the devout are visible. The filmmakers' solution was to include a satellite shot of this human Great Wall, which is, sure enough, visible from space. The result is an award-winning film, Short Cut to Nirvana, the title referencing the Hindu belief that the festival's high point, bathing at the confluence of the two real (Ganges and Yamuna) and one mythical (Sarasvati) rivers, will get you closer to the blissful release from the cycle of rebirth known as nirvana. It could easily have been a silly Westerners' oglefest, but instead we see an intelligent and inquisitive team at work, and a knowing set of eyes behind the cinematography and editing.

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Hiya Swanhuyser


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