Mission: Joy – Documentary celebrates friendship between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama screened at HIFF

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“Bromance” has been a staple in cinema, literature, and popular culture for a long time. Perhaps the latest incarnation of this genre is Barrack Obama and Bruce Springsteen’s “Renegade” podcast series.

Not to diss Bruce and Barrack but they have nothing on Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.

Talk about occupying a rarified demographic.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the subjects of this documentary must be the most cherished spiritual leaders of our time. Both are unflappable, “cool” and beloved. Well maybe the Dalai Lama is not so beloved by Xi Jinping, but I’d say that’s to his credit.

Mission: Joy, a new documentary by Academy Award-winning director Louie Psihoyos, which recently screened at the Hawaii International Film Festival, offers an up close and personal glimpse of Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.

The theme of the documentary revolves around their friendship. Despite their very different “upbringings” (also presented in the film) we come to realize they share a visceral knowledge of tragedy—both on a personal and global scale.

The premise of the film is simple.

The Dalai Lama and “Arch”, as Tutu is known to his friends, want to spend some quality time together. Organizing this is complicated, to say the least. Both have rather busy itineraries. Arch invited His Holiness to South Africa for his birthday celebration but the mean-spirited African National Congress Party (which runs South Africa) made it impossible for Tutu’s buddy to get a visa.

Suffice it to say, Arch was not pleased. He has the patience of Job and a Christ-like disposition most of the time but the ANC (Tutu’s former political allies) were determined not to do anything that would upset the PRC. As we note in the documentary, this really pissed him off.

Although a visit by the Dalai Lama to S.A. was not in the cards, Tutu accepted an invitation to visit the Dalai Lama’s stomping grounds in Dharmsala, which was the setting for the documentary.

Once there, the two resumed their very comfortable rapport, ribbing each other like the best of friends—which, they are.

Of course, their lighthearted banter illuminates the flip side of their day jobs which are more often than not, very serious in nature.

How the two spiritual icons do what they do is an underlying theme. Dealing mindfully with some of the nastiest people on the planet is no mean feat. However that’s part of their job description.

The lessons for us are forgiveness and compassion, which they have in abundance.

Getting to the root of their personal development is a large component of this film. The documentary provides bios that illuminate the two protagonists.

Through archival footage and animation we learn about their respective struggles and growth as human beings. We see footage of Desmond Tutu at great personal risk, opposing the forces of apartheid by addressing throngs of his countrymen, giving them comfort and courage to fight on.  

Likewise, we witness the Dalai Lama’s transformation from a young child, plucked from his family in Tibet emerging as the conscience of humanity. Like his good friend the archbishop, it’s the Dalai Lama’s role to take on the burdens of an entire people.

But we needn’t get too filled with angst.

Back in India, it’s a lovefest in Dharmsala, with the two men constantly cracking jokes.

However, it’s not all fun and games.

At times, in the course of hearing their personal stories we get surprisingly intimate details, particularly from Desmond Tutu who recounts the guilt he felt not being present for his father’s death. We see that this still haunts him.

During their week-long visit, the Dalai Lama introduces Arch to some of the youngest members of the Tibetan diaspora, children smuggled out of Tibet by their parents who are convinced there is no future for them at home. In fact they have become orphans–they may never see their parents again. Arch encounters these young refugees at a ceremony where he witnesses their heart-rending stories of separation and hardship.

The beauty of this film is the undiluted truth and humor that comes from these men of conscience. However dismal things appear, both find joy – both in their friendship and in their work.

So what is the takeaway from this film? There are a few but one lesson that Tutu articulates is that if you hate your enemies it will destroy your own humanity. 

Towards the end of the film Tutu playfully tells the Dalai Lama that he’s heard of the scheme to decide who his next incarnation will be. In other words the Chinese Government has decided that they will pick the Dalai Lama’s successor.

“That’s pretty funny,” Tutu tells His Holiness. In a jovial manner Tutu makes it clear how outrageous and corrupt this idea is.

As Tutu says, we should thank the Communist Chinese for the presence of the Dalai Lama. “Without intending it”, he said, “the Chinese have given the world a wonderful gift.”

If you’re even remotely interested in these two iconic figures, the story of their mutual admiration society will be inspirational.

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