The Dharma Bum – Interview with Ian Lawton


Posted February 5, 2015 in Film Features

Cirillo’s

Irish filmmaker Ian Lawton is putting together funding for a feature length, part-animated documentary called The Dharma Bum. The documentary investigates the travels and travails of Laurence Carroll, a free-thinking, atheist Irish hobo born in the 1850s who upped sticks for Burma, and traded booze for Buddhism, becoming known as U Dhammaloka. His incredibly fascinating life saw him travel the world in the early part of the 20th century under numerous aliases, renouncing the orthodoxies of his native Ireland and embracing Eastern spiritual practices, and standing up to British colonialists and Catholic missionaries in South East Asia before mysteriously disappearing without a trace. We spoke to Ian Lawton about the project, the history of Carroll himself and

The subject of the film – Laurence Carroll – is extremely interesting, but obviously not exactly a mainstream hero in terms of the Irish establishment. Nonetheless, it still seems remarkable that this story seems to have been buried so long. Is he more widely known elsewhere? 

Not really. His existence has only recently been discovered and the first evidence of such was published in November of 2010. He would be known in certain academic and specialist circles, but that numbers just a small privileged few, and again, only since 2010. It is my goal, in making this film, to bring his story to the mainstream, or as close as I possibly can. He is too charismatic a character to remain such a niche subject. He was a man of the people and for the people, a working class hero and man who deserves to be remembered. He’s not a mainstream hero – not yet – but I feel he deserves to be as household a name as other Irish historical figures such as Oscar Wilde or Michael Collins.

Was there specific attempts to hide his story (being anti-Catholic, anti-colonialism) or was it just something that would not have thrived over here?

The history books are written by the organisations that won. This was one man standing up to the might of the British Empire. A thorn in their side, a fly in their ointment. He was a pest, a nuisance. He thrived on confrontation. He made it his business to stand out from the crowd and confront the oppressors head on. He was courageous. An outspoken activist and agitator, an atheist and freethinker. He was righteous and indignant. It is no surprise really that for the last 100 years many Buddhist studies expert have cited the Englishman Alan Bennet (known as Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya) as being the first western Buddhist monk, when in fact Dhammaloka was there long before him. Dhammaloka was simply unacknowledged by the history books and his memory dissipated with time.

It is only in recent years, with the digitisation of old documents such as newspapers, and the the preservation of old publications that his story has been unearthed. It has been meticulously put together by the detective work of three researchers: Prof. Alicia Turner of York University in Toronto, Dr. Laurence Cox of the National University of Ireland in Maynooth, and Prof. Brian Bocking of University College Cork. This was a mammoth undertaking, considering Carroll travelled in a time before passports and used several aliases. The detective work it took to connect all these various needles in various haystacks into a coherent story is remarkable. The film I am making is as much about this incredible task as it is about the man himself.

What inspired you to tell his story in particular? Albeit that even the basic details of it make it an extremely interesting story!

Dr. Cox asked me this very question when I first visited him at his office in Maynooth. The answer is simple: there is no one like him. He is totally unique. The first of his kind and very much ahead of his time. When I came across this story initially, it was just a short broad strokes article on the BBC history website. Reading this article inspired me. I instantly began seeing the movie in my head and immediately began composing an email to one of the research professors mentioned in that article before I had even reached the end of the page. It ignited something within me and I was inspired, I needed to tell this story. I felt it was an injustice to this man’s legacy that he remain forgotten. He is arguably more relevant today, and his story is hugely inspirational. His transformational arc is extraordinary. The journey from an alcoholic to tramp to an activist freethinking monk is remarkable. We could all benefit from learning more about his life and convictions.

Obviously I assume footage of even contemporary times in that part of the world is quite rare. What format will the documentary take? I saw mention of animation – what role will that play?

Only one official photograph of the man exists. There is no footage of him whatsoever. Nothing at all that can be cut into the narrative of a film. Instead of recreating key scenes in his life with actors in costume, which seems to me par for the course in historical documentaries, I have decided that the epic scope of this story would lend itself perfectly to animation. I am a former animator myself and very much remain in love with the art form. Traditional hand-drawn animation is slowly dying out as computer generated films become more popular, but I feel audiences still engage with the human touch of hand drawn animation. But the choice is not simply because, animation will be ‘cool’, but it’s a great device to help engage the audience with the story. I don’t see this film as a documentary as such, but a movie in documentary format. His story is an exciting adventure that spans the globe.

Tell us about the Buddhist crowd sourcing platform – what does that entail exactly? 

Well, if you are familiar with Kickstarter or IndieGoGo then you know what a crowdfunding platform is. Dana.io works in the same way, but what makes Dana.io different are two main reasons. Firstly, they operate on the Buddhist principal of ‘Dana’ which, roughly translated, is the act of giving without receiving. They offer their platform and facilities for free. You are in no obligation to pay them for this. They rely solely upon the donations of their users. And secondly, they are not a faceless corporate entity, they deal with you personally. I spent many hours talking with Alan Clements, the head of Dana.io, developing the campaign prior to its launch. He is a real good guy and took a personal interest in this story as he himself is a former Buddhist monk who was also ordained in Burma, spent many years there and had never heard of Dhammaloka.

Is Buddhism something that is important to you specifically, or was it more that you thought that that specific platform (dana.io) would be suitable to telling the story of Laurence Carroll?

I relate to Carroll as I am of a similar mindset. I too am an atheist, a freethinker but also practice Buddhism in my daily life, so it was serendipitous really: that the same week I had discovered the story of Dhammaloka, Dana.io was launched. I just felt it was a perfect match to have a film about a remarkable Buddhist monk be crowdfunded upon a Buddhist platform. The downside to this is that dana.io is relatively unknown and doesn’t have the brand recognition yet that the heavyweights enjoy. So much so, I have received emails stating things like ‘I’ve seen your movie on dana.io, how do I give money to your Kickstarter?’ But, having said that, the platform is relatively new, its still in Beta, and given time I believe it will stand shoulder to shoulder with the big guys, as they are good people and get personally involved, which is a beautiful thing. We are confident that we will raise enough funds to get this project going.

Who else are you working with to produce the movie? I know Mumblin’ Deaf Ro is doing some of the soundtrack work for example.

Indeed yes. I was lucky enough to convince Ronan to come out of semi-retirement to compose the score for the film. If you take a look at the teaser trailer you will hear a piece that was specially composed for it by Ro. It’s beautiful and very Ro. I’m a big fan of his and while I was putting this project together he seemed like the obvious choice. I love his style, his musical sensibility and look forward to collaborating with him on this project.

As for the animation, I have invited my former animation teacher, Paul Bolger, to help me realise the animation. Paul has produced and directed many animated projects over the years from award winning shorts to feature length epics. He is currently working on his passion project, which he first told me about back when he was my tutor, entitled Hound. It is the life story of the celtic legend of Cú Chulainn. He has just completed volume 1 of the comic book and he is developing into a feature film. Its amazing stuff and I am honoured to have his as part of the creative team for The Dharma Bum.

Ultimately, I believe that this film will evolve organically, piece by piece. Since making this project public at this stage, I have received many emails from enthusiastic people who have offered to help out in various ways, from production assistance, to cinematographers willing to shoot for free to animators who wish to be included. Its a beautiful thing. The story of Dhammaloka has obviously touched people, even at this stage and it humbles me greatly that people wish to help me in telling this mans amazing story.

The Dharma Bum is seeking funding through the world’s first Buddhist crowdfunding system and also will feature musical soundtrack from Mumblin’ Deaf Ro. To help bring this brilliant, ridiculous tale to life, go to www.dana.io/thedharmabum

Words: Ian Lamont

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