The year of preparation and special classes leading up to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Lehigh this summer, as well as His Holiness’s teachings and lecture, are the subject of a documentary film currently being produced by the university.
The project is a joint effort between Steven J. Lichak, senior producer of Library and Technology Services’ new Digital Media Studios
, and independent filmmaker Zeke Zelker of Allentown’s Independence Dream Machine. With courses across the humanities examining the Dalai Lama, Buddhism, and Tibetan issues, Lichak and Zelker are attempting to capture the enormous range of viewpoints on campus, from students and faculty to visiting lecturers, related to the visit.
Lichak had already been filming the various lectures by visiting scholars when university officials asked him to broaden his focus to include Lehigh classes and viewpoints.
“All of the coursework is being wrapped up into an hour-and-a-half long summary of the preparations, up to and including the visit,” Lichak said. “It’ll be an opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look.”
Lichak has enlisted three Lehigh students to assist with the project. They have filmed numerous lectures related to His Holiness’s visit and shot one-on-one interviews with university professors and students. An interview with Lehigh President Alice Gast is also planned.
“They took on the coursework through independent study, supported by The Digital Media Studios,” Lichak said. “Each student is taking a two-semester-long journey, and they’ve each taken a different course, which is just fantastic. We told them upfront, ‘We’re not going to stifle your educational discovery; we’re not going to tell you what to write and shoot and how to present it.’”
Senior English major Margot Reybitz, whose mother is Zen Buddhist, works in the Digital Media Studio and is one of the students tapped by Lichak to help out. Reybitz said conducting research, conducting interviews, and writing scripts have given her much greater insight into issues she knew little about, and the process of creating a film has stretched her academically.
“It’s a really cool project to be a part of, especially as media and technology grow in the college curriculum,” she said. “It’s a really interesting idea: As an English major, I’m so used to writing things down and discussing them in class, but how do you make that into a visual and audio piece?”
While the contributions of Reybitz and her two fellow students have helped greatly, Lichak also teaches video production in addition to producing other video work for Lehigh, and the documentary project became too big to tackle with such small team. Bringing in professional help to supplement both his and his students’ efforts was critical. Zelker was welcomed to the project as a co-producer and to the university as a visiting artist. He has been filming the campus community’s views on His Holiness and on their own religious beliefs.
“I’m just trying to get a lot of different perspectives,” Zelker said. “I don’t want it to be one-sided. I want to bring a very large breadth to the entire project.”
Later this spring or early this summer, the producers hope to secure a space on campus to allow students, faculty, and staff to offer their feelings about the Dalai Lama through private, confessional-style filming often seen in reality television shows. After His Holiness’s visit, Lichak and Zelker will take the dozens of hours of film they will have shot and edit it down into 90 minutes or so, ideally by the start of the fall semester. The film will be offered to Lehigh’s board of trustees and be available as a teaching resource for future university classes. If the producers are satisfied with its quality, they will look into airing it on PBS.
“It’s turning out to be a very nicely fleshed-out overall look at just what the university undertook in preparation for the Dalai Lama to visit,” Lichak said.
Zelker sees the film as a way to unite Lehigh around a unique opportunity to tell more of its story to the world.
“It’s a matter of bringing the university together,” he said. “It’s a kind of team-building thing among faculty, staff, and students. To host an international figure brings a lot of attention to Lehigh. It’s an image issue as well—because Lehigh has always been seen as an engineering school, this is another step to put its footprint in the academic world and show that a new life is being led at Lehigh.”