UT grad explores natural history and cultural ritual in award-winning documentary ‘Vultures of Tibet’


University of Texas Radio, Television and Film graduate Russell Bush was conducting online research a few years ago for a film he planned to pitch to his bosses at National Geographic.

He envisioned making a film about bird behavior in the Americas. Those plans ceased when he came across graphic images on Reddit.com of birds picking apart human cadavers in a Tibetan “sky burial” ritual. The pictures lacked any cultural context and did nothing to help develop understanding of the importance of the ritual’s place in Tibetan society.

“I thought it was careless, to be frank, without a filter of what you‘re looking at, because it’s so different than what people in this part of the world are used to seeing,” Bush said.

Bush, an Alaska native, had long had an interest in the Tibet that existed outside of Western stereotypes.

“I think there’s a lot of myths built around Tibet,” Bush said recently. “I think we have an understanding in the west of Tibet as this sort of spiritual Shangri-La,” but we may not think about it much beyond a Free Tibet bumper sticker. “I think it’s much more challenging to know what’s going on there because the flow of information there is so restricted.”

Bush followed his curiosity to the politically charged region to understand the place the sky burials held in Tibetan society, to lift the veil of confusion, projection and misinterpretation.

His one-month trip with a producer and cinematographer resulted in “Vultures of Tibet,” a fascinating, beautiful and somewhat sad documentary that reveals a misunderstood culture. The film, which has been short-listed for a Student Academy Award, will screen Saturday night with 11 other student films as part of the UT Radio, Television and Film Department’s annual Wofford Denius Longhorn Showcase.

There are two ways to make a film in Tibet: You can go to through the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China, or you can work back channels and attempt to stay below the radar. Bush opted for the latter. He doesn’t like to go into details but says that he was able to find willing local collaborators inside China and Tibet.

Through some internal recommendations from contacts, he and his producer found some people from China and Tibet who trusted Bush and his company’s intentions.

“We weren’t coming in to make a film that sensationalized sky burials or that viewed it through a completely Western lens,” Bush said. “We went over there to make a portrait of an interaction of the human and natural world and a way of showing death and therefore life in a way that we’ve never seen it in the Western world, and really highlight the connection we have to the natural world.”

But even with the trust of his in-country collaborators, there was no guarantee that Bush would get the footage he wanted or needed for his film, and he was under regular surveillance from plainclothes policeman. Bush didn’t know if he would even be able to get footage of the burials, but on the first day of production in Tibet, there they were — in the mountains, witnessing a group of men bringing a wrapped body to a spot that was soon surrounded by vultures that picked the bodies apart.

The birds weren’t the only animals of prey. Chinese tourists, chatting and giggling, with cameras at the ready, surrounded the site of the deeply personal and emotionally taxing ritual.

“It was kind of uncanny the way the people behaved like vultures,” Bush said. “As the vultures were descending on this body to consume, the people were descending on this culture.”

Bush spent most of his youth in the Rocky Mountains, Alaska and the Redwoods, and says he saw a parallel between the behavior of the tourists in Tibet and those who would tromp through his small coastal Alaskan town during high season, oblivious of their effect on the natural environment.

Bush was initially frustrated with the tourists steeping into his shot, but he quickly realized that this was the movie — the way people gawked at a culture they seemingly did not respect or understand.

“That’s the cool thing with documentaries. You’re always confronted and you’re always challenged to tell the story that is presented to you,” Bush said.

The on-the-ground lesson reinforced advice Bush received from his UT thesis adviser and mentor, award-winning filmmaker PJ Raval, whom Bush communicated with via satellite phone while abroad.

“Some of the best advice I got from him was, ‘Always be ready to shoot. You may shoot your entire film in 20 minutes,’” Bush said.

Bush came to UT for graduate school in 2008 because he wanted to move beyond the strict traditions of filmmaking and study and work and live in a place where there were a lot of storytellers with unique voices making different kinds of work.

The filmmaker, who graduated in December, says he appreciated the challenge and opportunity that UT’s film department presented. The program forced him to ask questions about who he is and how he sees the world, queries that helped him find his artistic voice.

“UT offers an experience for filmmakers to really plot out their own methodology,” Bush said, while other schools spend more time focusing on the technical aspects of filmmaking.

Bush also found support from the Austin Film Society, which awarded him two Texas Filmmaker Production Fund grants totaling $13,000, without which Bush says he would not have been able to make “Vultures of Tibet.”

Bush, along with two other students whose films will screen Saturday, has already won a regional Student Academy Award for the 22-minute documentary, making him a national finalist. An announcement of the winners is expected in the middle of May, but the thoughtful Bush takes a modest approach to the awards.

“I guess it’s great,” Bush said. “My goal of this film is to have people see it and to have people engage with the issues at hand and sort of bring a further media literacy to the populations of the world … to educate.”



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