Q&A WITH DIRECTOR, DASTAN KHALILI
How did you learn about Master Zhou and what made you decide to share his story through a documentary?
I heard about Master Zhou through a meditation class many years ago in Sedona. At the time, his assistant offered to send me some reading materials which were very compelling. The concept was to essentially come into contact, awareness, and harmony of your own internal energy, and use that for your health and longevity. I decided to take some classes with Master Zhou, but soon after I suffered a fall off the side of a mountain and tore my AC ligament in my shoulder. I was taken to the emergency room and was told that I had to have surgery on it and have a metal rod put in my shoulder. Before going for surgery, I went and saw Master Zhou, who suggested I try allowing him to treat it a few days a week for one month, before I try surgery. Within that month, I got back full mobility of my shoulder, no longer needed surgery, and to this day I maintain complete mobility, function, and strength. At that point, I realized that I was feeling something unique, and I began observing Master Zhou further, studying with him, and meeting others who he’d helped. There were decades of stories of people who had been healed through Qi Gong, and Master Zhou, and I realized that Qi Gong wasn’t just some hokey health thing, but a very recognized aspect of traditional Chinese medicine. And, here was this man in LA, with all these miraculous stories, and I felt compelled to make a film. Of course, he said no at first. Many had tried, but after years of studying with him and continuing to have the conversation, he agreed.
You’re an actor, and now a multi-hyphenate documentary writer, producer, editor, cinematographer, director. What was that transition like and what advice do you have for others?
I truly believe that making film is a communal task. Being a director for me is listening to the community and then taking that vision and bringing the greatest talent together to manifest it. What informs me of the film is the story itself. How you are going to shoot it, and cut it, it’s about listening to the project itself. I think my job as a filmmaker is really to tune into what the project wants to say, because for me it’s very much a living thing. As far as becoming a director, I was a theater actor in my early days and I decided to come to LA and give that career a go. I had some success in Film and TV, but I never felt that the work was compelling enough for me as an artist because I came from the theater and after spending many years with product placement as a side job and working on many sets, working every single job and also learning the craft of editing, I decided that I could actually create a project for myself to star in and play a character that I want to play. I developed my first feature length project Insomnia Manica, which I starred in, wrote, and directed. In that process I learned the potential of what I’m capable of and where the essence of my passion is, which is directing. From there I moved forward to the documentary realm because I also wanted to harness an understanding of what is available in real time and ultimately bridge back that inter-narrative and make it more compelling to the audience so that it rings true and can resonate. Narrative filmmaking is very mythical in its aspects, whereas documentary is very real, and my desire as a filmmaker is to bridge the two. With Master, I was capable of raising enough money where I could get an Emmy Award winning sound designer or an award-winning director of photography and have those high-level talents at my disposal so that as a director I can get the best for the vision. What I would say to anybody who is interested in this business, whatever the aspect may be, is that if you follow that song in your heart, that truth within yourself, and trust it, it will lead you to where you really want to go. Something is calling you forward and compelling you to do that.
As a child, I grew up learning the poetry of Rumi, and Rumi said, “seek not water, seek thirst.” If you seek thirst, then it is inevitable that you will reach the water.
Tell us about the production of the film from beginning to end, highlighting the more challenging aspects. What was the production process like? What were some unique challenges of filming in China? Do you speak/understand Mandarin?
I have an understanding of Mandarin, and I learned more in the filmmaking process. The film itself took about six years to complete. The beginning process was interviewing Master and getting him to agree to even make the film. After that, we got about 18 hours of interviews and then it took a year of sitting and thinking about what kind of film I wanted to make. The next challenge was money; raising the funds that were necessary, bringing together the elements that made people interested to tell this compelling story. Throughout the filmmaking process, raising the funds continued up until the very end. What we would do is get enough funding to move to the next step and then once that step was complete, we would raise more funds to continue. The next major challenge was shooting in China itself. Luckily, we were with Master Zhou and he is very well known in a lot of China, so we were given unique benefits to go to places where most people are not allowed. At the same time, many times we would decide to shoot guerrilla in city streets at which point our equipment and gear were confiscated because we didn’t have the proper permitting at the time. However, the Chinese people are very understanding and are interested in supporting each other for growth so our gear was given back to us and we were able to move forward. Once the film was shot and brought back to the US, the post production process began. We had hours and hours of footage in Mandarin and we had to find a translator to go through the film with us, with a fine-tooth comb, every single minute of footage was translated to English. Once that was done, which took about a year, we sat down and began editing, and of course, this led us back to getting more interviews, doing more editing, and raising more funds, until we finally got to what you see now, which was completed in May of 2018.
Have you seen Master Zhou use his healing techniques in person? Were you skeptical at first? As a filmmaker what techniques did you use and how did you approach introducing skepticism?
I had seen Master Zhou healing people, including myself. Some of the methods he used were things I was most certainly skeptical of, because I had no understanding of it, and I was looking at it from a Western analytical perspective. Once I began studying traditional Chinese medicine more, I could see how effective much of it was. As far as introducing skepticism into the film and making that a key dramatic aspect, what was compelling to me was my own reaction. Is this real? Can this be scientifically proven? After finding someone who was of that same science-based mindset, it was just a matter of interviewing that person and having their response coming from a very clinical point of view. Putting that into the film, juxtaposing it with the contrasting footage and ultimately leaving it for the audience to decide. I felt that as a documentary film it was very important for us to explore all aspects. What I hope for in this project is not only a cultural understanding of Qi Gong, but the recognition that every individual has tremendous potential available to them. It’s just the process of self-empowerment and coming to realize that what you are seeking is already within you, and if you travel within, the potential is limitless.
As student of Master Zhou’s, what do you hope viewers will think about after they’ve watched the film?
Being a student of Master Zhou has its own criteria and aspects that are important but I’m also a filmmaker, and as a filmmaker my ultimate loyalty is to the film. I think that if people observe the film and realize “that really resonates with me” or “I want to understand that more,” they also realize that we are not just exploring a question but creating an opportunity where someone can go and learn, find healing or go forward. It’s not so much that we’re presenting the question but we’re saying, “here’s a path that you can explore if you so desire.”