Dalai Lama comes to Washington; D.C. native premieres documentaries

The Dalai Lama speaks while participating in a multi-faith panel discussion with Jewish, Islamic and Christian leaders Monday, July 18, 2011, in Chicago. The Dalai Lama praised Illinois on Sunday for recently abolishing the death penalty. His talk came a day after meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington, which prompted an angry rebuke from China. The country sent troops to occupy Tibet in 1949. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

WASHINGTON — The road to peace may be paved by the Dalai Lama. But who knew the road to the Dalai Lama included John Wayne, Johnny Cash and Harrison Ford?

The three cultural icons influenced D.C. native Khashyar Darvich in most unusual ways en route to creating a powerful pair of documentaries — “Dalai Lama Awakening” and “Compassion in Action.”

Both films will premiere on Wednesday in a sold-out show at the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market in Northeast D.C. The next morning, the Dalai Lama will join President Barack Obama for the National Prayer Breakfast, marking the fourth encounter between the two leaders.

Both of those events will be hard to attend — the premiere is sold out and the prayer breakfast is for VIPs — but the public can see the documentaries again on Thursday, Feb. 12, at the Angelika Film Center and Cafe at Mosaic, in Fairfax, Virginia.

Darvich will hold Q&As after both screening events. But first, he joined WTOP to offer a sneak preview of both movies and to discuss his experience meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader.

“The Dalai Lama that you see speaking in a stadium of 20,000 is the same person that you experience one-on-one,” Darvich tells WTOP. “What struck me about the Dalai Lama is the extraordinary presence he has. I was in the room with him; I was interviewing him; I was four feet away from him. I felt the room fill with this kind of warm, compassionate glow. You could feel it.”

Interviewing his Holiness was quite the thrill for a filmmaker of humble beginnings. Born at George Washington Hospital, Darvich was the son of a Swedish-German-American mother and an Iranian father who met at American University during the 1960s. She studied nursing; he, political science.

After working at the Iranian Embassy in D.C., Darvich’s father moved the family back to his native Iran, settling in a small village in the mountains near the Caspian Sea. His mother learned to speak Farsi while Darvich grew up surrounded by big cows, lizards, orange trees and Iranian culture.

At age five, the family moved back to America so that his father could get his Ph.D. at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. During this time, Darvich grew up watching countless Westerns with his father, particularly John Wayne’s “Red River” (1948) and TV’s “Gunsmoke” (1955-1975).

“The values of the West — honor, being honest and doing what’s right — I think those values mirrored his values growing up in this small village in Iran. When he grew up in Iran, it wasn’t the fanatical place it is now. It was before the Shah’s time and it was kind of a hybrid of the West and East,” Darvich says. “So as a kid I grew up watching all the Westerns. … Everything that we watch, everything that we do, kind of affects us and makes us who we are.”

Darvich began writing poems, but soon realized that if he wanted to reach a mainstream American audience, filmmaking might be a better avenue.

So he wrote a fictional screenplay called “Many Hidden Fires,” which he described as a Native American spiritual Western. Darvich thought Johnny Cash would be perfect to play the role of a medicine man, so like any good filmmaking hustler, he called Cash to give it a shot.

“We just called his office. We spoke with his agent first; his agent sent us to his office, and his office said, ‘Sure; send the script to us’,” Darvich says. “Johnny Cash read the script in his weekend cabin in Henderson, Tennessee, and he said, ‘I want the part.’ But like a lot of Hollywood projects … we just couldn’t raise the money for it. … Thinking back, it was kind of like ‘Dances with Wolves,’ and that’s why I think it wasn’t green-lit. It was too close to ‘Dances with Wolves.'”

With his Country-Western dreams crushed, Darvich dusted himself off and got back in the saddle.

“Like all things in life, when one door closes, another opens,” Darvich says. “So about the same time, I was offered my first documentary film, which ended up being broadcast on the History Channel.”

Whatta ya know — it was located on the frontier. “Black Hawk Waltz: Tales of a Rocky Mountain Town” chronicled how the gambling industry changed the small town of Black Hawk, Colorado.

“If you’re an artist, your art reflects your life and your life reflects your work,” Darvich tells WTOP. “As I was going through this search for … my purpose in life, that sort of bled into my films.”

In 1999, he directed a documentary about an American woman named Peace Pilgrim, who walked across America promoting peace during the Korean War. During that film, he interviewed notable peace thinkers, and thought to himself: Who better to promote peace than the Dalai Lama?

The idea for a new film was born.

And just like with Johnny Cash, Darvich tried reaching out to the Dalai Lama’s office.

“I was pleasantly surprised that they said yes,” Darvich tells WTOP.

After 10 months of waiting for his schedule to clear, his Holiness sat down with Darvich to shoot interviews for “Dalai Lama Awakening,” one of the two films screening this month in D.C.

The documentary follows 40 innovative thinkers from around the world who travel to India to meet the Dalai Lama and discuss ways to change the world.

“Everyone was inspired and expected this happy … love fest with the Dalai Lama. But as they arrived in India … they had to actually handle their own egos to finally arrive at the point where they realized that in order to change the world, you had to change yourself,” Darvich says. “You had to open your heart more. You had to be more clear about how each person can create positive change in the world around them, one person at a time, one step at a time, one day at a time.”

When it came time to find a narrator, Darvich did what he does best. He reached for the stars — this time, Harrison Ford.

“We contacted his office, we explained the project and we sent them a script,” Darvich says. “So Harrison Ford was flying somewhere and had the materials with him. When he landed his plane, he called his office and said, ‘I like the idea of the film. It sounds very inspiring. I want to support the Dalai Lama. I’ll do it.’ Six weeks later, we had him in a recording studio in Los Angeles.”

Darvich says he’s learned a lot from his celebrity encounters.

“You learn that celebrities are as human as we are, and they want to support positive things too,” Darvich says. “They have all the fame they want. They have all the money they need. But things like this (film) bring them kind of this deep satisfaction.”

While the Ford-narrated film is a more philosophical movie about peaceful ideas, its companion documentary, “Compassion in Action,” is a call-for-action piece.

Paired together, Darvich calls the experience the “Dalai Lama Double Feature.”

Again, both films will premiere Wednesday, Feb. 4, in a sold-out show at the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market, in Northeast D.C. They’ll screen again on Thursday, Feb. 12, at the Angelika Film Center and Cafe at Mosaic in Fairfax, Virginia. Both events will offer a Q&A with Darvich.

Click here for ticket information. And by all means, bring your Johnny Cash questions.

Hear the full interview below:


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