Monk with a Camera
Directors Guido Santi and Tina Mascara
In this day and age, it seems as though finding a feel-good documentary is a rarity. In Monk with a Camera, directors Tina Mascara and Guido Santi take the audience into the life of Nicholas “Nicky” Vreeland and his amazing journey along his own path to enlightenment. Born the grandson of legendary Vogue magazine editor Diana Vreeland and the son of U.S. diplomats, Nicky was raised “princely” in an opulent world filled with every advantage a young man could want. Growing up to be a handsome man-about-town, Nicky had his own flamboyant style and sophisticated manner that made him one of New York’s most eligible bachelors. However this life of privilege only took Nicky so far. It is best explained in the film during an interview with Nicky’s stepbrother, writer Ptolmey Thompkins “…he (Nicky) had this moment where he saw that the world of pleasures and appearances that he was so comfortable in was untrustworthy and that it would not ultimately get him anywhere – it would not carry him across.”.
Told through a gorgeous collection of personal photos, interviews of Nicky’s friends and family members, and animated reconstructions, the story of Nicky Vreeland’s life is a unique look at a man who had everything, and gave it up for everything. In the late seventies while jetting around India, Nicky was exposed to the Tibetan Buddhist culture for the first time and it is told in such a charming way that I have to save it for you to see. Just a few years later, Nicky would shave his head, throw his shoe collection that rivaled God’s on the curb, and leave to begin his life as a Buddhist monk at the Roto monastery in India. Along the narrative, we learn from Nicky’s teacher Rinpoche and Nicky himself more about the Buddhist culture than I think most Westerners know.
I’ve met a lot of people who attempt radical change – diets, haircuts, etc. But when Nicky shocked the world with his transformation, most around him chalked it up to little more than a phase. Twenty eight years later, Nicky Vreeland is still a devout Buddhist monk toeing a line between the East and West, and this is where the real conflict in the film occurs. To be a Buddhist monk means renouncing all pride and pleasures to live a simple life. Growing up in and around the world that Nicky did, one could imagine this conflict. When a situation arises that puts his monastery in jeopardy, Nicky finds himself again jetting around the globe selling photos that he has taken over the past twenty years in an attempt to save his temple.
Current Vogue editor Tonne Goodman says in the film during an interview “You don’t produce Art without some kind of ego gratification, it sneaks in there somehow. Which of course in the Tibetan discipline is not encouraged.” This relationship of Nicky still loving something that made up so much of his past – and it still loving him back is the heart of this movie’s conflict.
As the narrative reaches it’s emotional apex, you can’t help but feel like you are a part of this journey. Intimate scenes between Nicky’s family, his teacher, and one of the most notable figures in modern history bring you into their world and make you feel as though you are experiencing this with them.
The film is gorgeous. Its contrast between the bright colors of India’s Buddhist temples and black and white photos makes the documentary so enjoyable and enlightening. In this day and age, it seems as though finding a feel-good documentary is a rarity. In Monk with a Camera you have no choice but to feel good.
Monk with a Camera is playing this year’s Women in Cinema festival on Saturday, September 20th at 11:30am at the SIFF Cinema Uptown.