Arts and film festival returns to ‘the epicenter of Buddhism in the West’

Boulder resident Laura England Weiss founded the Buddhist Arts and Film Festival (BAFF) in 2018. Courtesy: Laura England Weiss

When Boulder resident Laura England Weiss graduated from nursing school three decades ago, she didn’t know how close it would lead her to the heart of human suffering and healing. 

This background in helping others, combined with her own experience working through grief, eventually led Weiss to establish the Buddhist Arts and Film Festival (BAFF) in 2018. Returning to the Dairy Arts Center on May 24, the annual event features a diverse slate of film screenings, performances, talks and workshops centered on Buddhism and the ever-winding journey to mindfulness and inner peace. 

Weiss says her years as a psychiatric nurse at Denver’s Fort Logan Mental Health Hospital launched an “exploration of working with the mind and people’s thoughts, perceptions and consequences.” But it was the loss of her mom that brought her where she is today.

“My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I was with her when she died,” Weiss recalls. “That morning, I was filled with love, grief and clarity, and all I could think about was what I could do for her and how we could honor her wonderful life — that is where this festival came from. It came from the open space of a broken heart.” 

Following an additional psych-nurse stint at Boulder’s Friendship House, Weiss spent another five years working in hospice care. That’s when Weiss met her teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, and began to learn Buddhist practices with a deepened sense of life’s transience.

“That was part of my journey to recognize impermanence, death and dying,” she says. 

‘Don’t give up’

When it came to marrying Buddhist practices with her passion for art, Weiss drew on her background in filmmaking. Having produced the documentary Journey From Zanskar and worked on the short film Art and Wisdom, she was inspired by her daughter Sarah’s participation in film festivals to take a crack at organizing one herself. 

“It all came together magically when we put together the first film festival in 2018,” she says. But after multiple cancellations in recent years due to COVID and personal factors, Weiss considered calling it quits altogether. 

“People were saying, ‘You just have to keep doing this. Don’t give up,’ so I decided to give it another shot,” Weiss explains. “I wanted to keep giving [artists] a platform to share what they do, how they do it and why they do it with the community.”

This year’s festival theme is described on the event’s website as “a vast, personal, transforming course of action.” With this in mind, BAFF aims to offer something for everyone, regardless of their familiarity with Buddhism.

“I would like to introduce people to Buddhist studies in an entertaining and beautiful way,” Weiss says. “This is an opportunity for me to share what I have learned over the last 30 years. Long-time practitioners, on the other hand, will value the chance to reconnect and possibly remember what initially drew them to Buddhism.”

Jillisa Hope Milner Buddhist monk Ven. Pannavati Bhikkhuni performs at the 2024 Buddhist Arts and Film Festival on May 24. Courtesy: BAF  

‘A rare privilege’ 

The opening night of BAFF 2024 will feature singing and storytelling by Buddhist monk Ven. Pannavati Bhikkhuni, followed by a screening of the 2021 film Dark Red Forest. Jin Huaqing’s documentary focuses on the nuns of the Yarchen Monastery who untangle matters of life and death on the unforgiving Tibetan Plateau during the coldest 100 days of the year.

“I was so inspired by these women who faced incredible adversity,” Weiss says. “I just thought it made sense to open the festival with that film and the rare opportunity to see Ven. Pannavati Bhikkhuni.”

Other programming includes a documentary about a young man’s journey into the Zhongnan Mountains of China (The Mountain Path) and a Buddhist noir thriller by Bhutanese filmmaker Dechen Roder (Honeygiver Among the Dogs). The weekend will also feature performances and discussions with jazz musicians Rico Jones and Bill McCrossen, plus dance and poetry workshops.

With its deep-rooted Buddhist heritage, Boulder provides a fitting backdrop for such a diverse slate of offerings. 

“Boulder is the epicenter of Buddhism in the West,” Weiss says. “A lot of great teachers have come to Boulder; Naropa University is here; and the Shambhala Center is here. Being introduced to Dharma is a rare privilege. Human life is so precious that you want to make the most of it, and I believe this is a path that supports that.” 

ON STAGE: Buddhist Arts and Film Festival. May 24-26, the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. $15-$65


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