Dark Red Forest is not a documentary driven forward by an eventful narrative designed to entertain — but neither are the lives it depicts. More than ten thousand nuns residing around Yarchen Monastery on the Tibetan Plateau, which lies in the Sichuan province of China, have dedicated their lives to introspective prayer and meditation routines, far away from everyday distractions. The monastery has striven to preserve the ways of Tibetan Buddhism since the Cultural Revolution that established communism in China in the ‘60s.
The nuns, cloaked in identical crimson robes that merge them into one dotted mass against the white snows of the harsh mountain cold (the settlement sits at an altitude of four thousand metres), practice retreats in tiny meditation cells during the coldest one hundred days of the year. It’s a rigorous and stripped-back existence of ritual and reflection in an unforgiving climate. Arriving at the monastery when young, they often stay until they die. At least, that had been their expected path until the demolition of residences by Chinese authorities who see the religion as a threat to their ideology. Documentarian Jin Huaqing beautifully captures the rhythms and preoccupations of a Buddhist way of life that hangs in precarity on the mountain amid the political machinations of outside forces. Dark Red Forest screens as part of Docpoint, the Helsinki Documentary Film Festival, which due to a pandemic surge in Finland, has just moved its programme entirely online, adding additional poignancy to the film’s themes of unpredictability and isolation.
We first join the nuns in the winter of 2017 and are soon immersed by a spare, sensorily visual approach of minimal dialogue without overt analysis into a universe where nature’s realities and innate wonder are quietly contemplated. The nuns endeavour to maintain their health in the gruelling cold, their days of meditation sometimes bringing on subtle hallucinations amid the white expanses and star-filled night skies. Guidance is present in the form of gurus, as the nuns learn sutras and are tested on their knowledge on their spiritual paths. They pray for the forgiveness of sins and the release of the souls of the dead. One woman asks for advice on a Tibetan herder she prays for, who is thought to have killed a brown bear and made medicine from it — a grave sin according to Buddhist dictates, which will have brought him bad karma. Another who indulged on yak meat on the Tibetan New Year, and now feels ill, sheepishly admits her transgression. «Work on your heart like herders work on yak leather, the nuns are instructed. It’s a way of life focused not on punishment but the realisation of truth to escape the inevitable cycle of suffering.
It’s a rigorous and stripped-back existence of ritual and reflection in an unforgiving climate.
Personal stories are not delved into here. Rather, rituals and visions of impermanence are threaded throughout. The greatest jolt comes with a Tibetan sky burial, in which a fresh corpse is left laid out in the snow on charnel grounds, to decompose and be eaten by carrion birds. The body, according to Buddhist belief, is by then an empty vessel, as the spirit has already transmigrated for reincarnation, and in leaving it to vultures to pick apart, an act of generosity has been performed, as the flesh is offered up as food to sustain other living beings.
Faith in numbers
The retreats of the nuns into their tiny cells may be an act of solitude, but what comes through markedly in Dark Red Forest is also the solidarity of faith in numbers. The monastery, with its massive prayer gatherings, where a crimson-clad sea of nuns spin their hand-held prayer wheels in unison, and food-making sessions where noodles are kneaded for a peaceful veritable army, is revealed to us as a system designed to support the traditions upon which it was founded and offer an optimal framework within which adherents can practice. By the winter of 2018, large posters of Chinese state propaganda hang around the settlement. They ostensibly call for ethnic unity but are harbingers of doom for freedom within diversity. By then, most of the nuns had been informed that they must leave by the summer, displaced before the authorities dismantle their abodes. We witness the uncertainty that the pressure to return to the secular world after so many years in the monastery brings. Will nuns be able to keep practicing after they leave and fit back in with their families? Can they even find the literal route home? As Deep Red Forest closes, one nun practices in solitude, her entire framework of collective support and community having been pulled from beneath her. But, she reflects, just as birds subsist under the constant threat of hawk attacks, grasping unpredictability is the very essence of her faith and our test on Earth.