High Plains Doctor: Healing on the Tibetan Plateau

Buddhism around the World Buddhism in Canada Charity Film Health Media Tibet Vancouver

HIGH PLAINS DOCTOR follows Isaac Sobol, Chief Medical Officer of Nunavut, on his tenth medical mission in a remote Tibetan village. The film shows the natural and cultural beauty of Northern Canada and Eastern Tibet and reveals disquieting parallels facing these traditional peoples.

HIGH PLAINS DOCTOR contains footage that will never be seen again. In 2010 the Tibetan village (Yushu) where the film was shot was the epicenter of a 6.9 magnitude earthquake.

The movie had its premiere in Vancouver in April, and was shown on CBC’s documentary channel yesterday. Hopefully, more screenings will follow!

Here’s the trailer:

Here’s some info from Helliwell Pictures‘ press kit:

Filmmaker Commentary 

I was introduced to Dr. Isaac Sobol by my close friend, travel companion, and composer Dr. Roman Elinson. At the time, Roman was a medical resident in Isaacʼs Aboriginal Peopleʼs Health program and I was releasing my first film.

Roman had accompanied Isaac on an earlier Yushu medical mission. His photographs from that experience revealed a remote and enchanted land of colorfully adorned people. Surprisingly, only few were the monks and holy-folk I had been accustomed to in representations of Tibet.

Nonetheless, Roman captured some stunning scenes and I was intrigued. Equally intriguing were Romanʼs stories, revealing a disturbing contrast: Yushu is a land of beauty, whose people live in pain. Roman described his experience in the clinic where he frequently encountered late-stage medical conditions, a lack of basic resources, and throngs of patients waiting days to be seen. Roman was instrumental to initiating this project.

I didnʼt quite know what to expect when I first went to meet Isaac. Heʼs one of Canadaʼs handful of Chief Medical Officers and the founding organizer of the Yushu medical mission. Over the telephone I found him to be charismatic, humorous, and dynamic. Getting to know Isaac, I have become familiar with a man of paradox. Isaac, while making the most serious medical decisions—whether to expend resources to save the life of a woman in his examining room or to save those resources for many others with less complicated issues, for example—is capable of smiling and celebrating the moments of joy in his life. In the course of shooting I continued to witness this: laughing, telling jokes, smiling, and not taking life too seriously while leading discussions about actual life and death scenarios, finessing a conversation with a likely operative of the communist government, calming a chaotic crowd outside the clinic, pressing wayward surgeons to do the right thing, and playing with children who are waiting for their sick parents to be examined. In getting to know Isaac I encountered a man short in height, yet towering in character.

The idea of joining Isaacʼs medical mission gelled with my own filmmaking mission. I founded Helliwell Pictures as a vehicle for telling stories of courageous individuals who give of themselves and, through their own creativity and commitment, bring hope to the others.

My first and previous film, Glimpses of Heaven, is a biographical documentary about three artists who confront their own pain, fears, and limitations with creativity and verve. Accompanying Isaac and his 2007 team on their medical mission (Isaacʼs 10th and final mission to Yushu) and documenting this journey—one which would reveal his life experience, wisdom, and character—felt right in line with my sense of purpose in documentary filmmaking.

Tibet is a mythologized place. Representations of Tibet in the West tend to follow two dominant themes: (a) Tibet as Shangri-La; a place of piety inhabited by a community of monks and nuns and (b) War-torn Tibet; focusing on contentious aspects of China-Tibet relations. In High Plains Doctor I attempt to present a different picture of Tibet. While the film includes cinematography of idyllic monasteries perched on mountaintops and briefly touches on the impact of the Cultural Revolution of 1959, its main thrust is to demonstrate the relationship between the politics of environmental and human health. Through my camera lens I attempt to convey the impact of profound change (such as modernization and globalization) on a traditional and isolated community.

In the clinic I witnessed Isaacʼs heart-wrenching dilemmas over how to administer resources—with life and death consequences. I recognized the universality of these dilemmas. The issues debated over spending on medicine within this little clinic in a faraway land resonate with our own healthcare debates in North America. Thus, I began to view the clinicʼs problems as a microcosm of larger philosophical questions about allocation of funds, decisions over who gets treated, and the impact of environmental health and public policy on human health.

In a sense High Plains Doctor is a film about recovering from disaster by putting one’s heart into giving to others. Isaac’s life journey, his journey in Tibet, and his medical mission, are all about healing others, but in the process he heals himself. Making this film, and following Isaacʼs healing journey, has affirmed a fundamental belief: when it appears all is lost, the way out may be to open oneself and give!

Despite a conviction that his accomplishments are minor within a sea of pain, Isaac has endured a decade of sacrifice and hardship to continue operating his Yushu clinic. For Isaac it is important that his patients know they are not forgotten and that he cares. I am profoundly grateful to Isaac, his team, the translators, and the patients I met at the clinic.

This experience of making High Plains Doctor has taught me about how I choose to look at my own life. I consider myself fortunate to have had the experience and Iʼm humbled by the openness and humility of Isaac’s great mind and caring nature.

I hope you enjoy this film and leave it with a feeling of inspiration. As I have written elsewhere, “true connection is embracing difference, true gifts go both ways, and true healing is selfless.”

– Michael Oved Dayan, Filmmaker

About Isaac 

Dr. Isaac Harry Sobol, the central figure at the heart of High Plains Doctor, has spent most of his life healing. Isaac is a well-established leader in the Canadian medical community, yet he struggles with a life-long theme of feeling excluded. Attempting to find his place in the world, Isaac has undergone many transformations and had numerous labels apply: singer/songwriter (his songs are featured in the film), safari park wild animal caretaker, lighthouse attendant, park ranger, rock band manager, recording studio office manager, advertising copywriter, physician, beatnik, comedian, sage, and artist. Struggling with feeling like a misfit, Isaacʼs journey of healing has certainly been an inward one; his pain pivots him to heal.

Isaacʼs journey of healing has also been outward, leading him to heal others. A passionate advocate and expert in aboriginal health strategy, Isaac currently serves as Chief Medical Officer for the Northern Canadian territory of Nunavut. His broad medical experience ranges from working as a physician in Ile-la-Crosse, a Métis community of Northern Saskatchewan, the Medical Health Officer for the Nisgaʼa Valley Health Board in Northern British Columbia, and Director of the Division of Aboriginal Peopleʼs Health at the University of British Columbia Medical School.

In seeking to heal himself, Isaac has come under the mentorship of Akong Rinpoche (a Tulku in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism and founder of the Samye Ling Monastery). In seeking to heal others, Isaac smuggles medicine to the people of Tibet. In Tibet, Isaac finds acceptance, acknowledgement, and inclusion. True gifts go both ways.

About the Location 

High Plains Doctor was shot in two locations: Iqaluit, Nunavut, just below the Arctic Circle and and the village of Yushu in the Kham region of Eastern Tibet. Dr. Isaac Sobol has lived among, and worked with, the inhabitants of each location. Over the course of becoming one of Canadaʼs senior experts in aboriginal public health, Isaac has gained important insights and noted some surprisingly significant commonalities.

The indigenous people, Isaacʼs patients, in each of these seemingly disparate locations share common social, environmental, and health concerns. In each case people are losing their livelihoods as new ways of doing things displace their age-old rituals. Nomadic hunters are now forced to live in permanent dwellings and to shop in grocery stores. A lack of understanding of synthetic packaging has led to widespread pollution. Traditional means are no longer viable, and feelings of depression and marginalization have ensued. In Canada the melting of the polar ice caps is a major concern for the Inuit of Nunavut. Native Tibetans are concerned about the retreat of the glaciers of the Tibetan plateau. Ultimately, the negative impact of these forces leads to impoverished human health. Yushu is a remote and isolated village at the crossroads of an ancient way of life and encroaching forces of modernity. This village, once mythologized as the birthplace of the legendary King Gesar of Ling, is the focal point of High Plains Doctor. For Isaac, Yushu “feels like home.” The language, the food, the people are at once foreign and familiar.

High Plains Doctor accompanies Isaac on his tenth consecutive and final mission to Yushu. Every year Isaac would gather a group of medical volunteers and travel an arduous 19-hour bus journey over washed out roads and fields, from Xining to Yushu, to implement a primary care medical health clinic. Yushu now stands as piles of death and rubble, resulting from an earthquake registering at 7.1 on the Richter scale with an epicenter only 30 km away. High Plains Doctor documents what was to become Isaacʼs final medical mission to Yushu. It may also be a final testament to a lost way of life in a village unlikely to be rebuilt with its traditional character and might otherwise only live in the memories of a few.

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