We all know people who walked five miles, uphill, in the snow, barefoot, to get to school.
They've got nothing on the children of Zanskar.
Located in northwest India, surrounded by the Himalayan mountains and completely locked in by ice and snow for up to seven months a year, Zanskar is the last remaining original Tibetan Buddhist society with a lineage dating back thousands of years. About eight years ago, the Dalai Lama entrusted two monks from a monastery there with keeping its traditions alive. The monks would take on two tasks: the first, to build a school for the children of the community; the second, to keep education going in the meantime by escorting the brightest kids over a 17,500-foot pass to worthwhile schools and monasteries.
Oscar- and Emmy-nominated filmmaker Frederick Marx, best known for 1994's Hoop Dreams, went with the monks and 17 children (ages 4 to 12) in 2004, and recorded the events in his documentary Journey from Zanskar.
"I'm proud to say I held up pretty well through most of it," Marx says of the multiple-day trip. "The day we tried to get over 14- to 17,000 feet, in the snow, that was trying. I realized pretty early in that day that I was going to be useless."
He sent his cameraman, Nick Sherman (whose Colorado Springs parents are co-hosting a Jan. 10 pre-release screening at Colorado College), on ahead that day. Marx focused on "doing [his] best to survive and make it over the pass."
The California-based filmmaker, 54, is not an extreme adventurist. He says he'd never done anything like this before, "and I can tell you the thought went through my head many times, 'I'm too old for this.'"
But Marx is a practicing Buddhist, and this project connected deeply with him on many levels. One, in particular, is what he considers the heart of this film: "Parents giving up their children, who they may not see ever again, in hopes of getting them a better education, a better chance at life."
It's been five years now since those kids last saw their families, but Marx, who visited with them in July, says they're all doing well. Each is still in school, and the monks are hoping to be able to get them home for a visit this summer. If they do make the trip, they'll find the new Zanskar school built, but not yet up and running.
"They have the actual structure, but not the infrastructure," Marx says. "They don't have the money to support them."
He hopes that once Journey from Zanskar has its world premiere at the Boulder Film Fest in February, people across the globe will want to donate to the monks' work.
"Every penny in [profits] that the film receives is going to the monks," Marx says. "That's my first priority."