With his video cameras, Rick Ray has sneaked into many hot places — hot in terms of weather, buzz, and danger — and come out with quality films. But even he was nonplussed when he finally got his audience with the Dalai Lama. “Meeting the Dalai Lama literally changed my life,” says Ray, who tours the world as a backpacker and makes films about his experiences.
His 2001 film “Jerusalem: Sacred and Profane,” will be shown on Tuesday, March 6, at the State Theater in New Brunswick as part of its debut four-part travel series, Adventures Abroad. The series opens on Tuesday, February 13, with “Postcards from Italy,” by Steve McCurdy, followed by “Cruising The Orient on the QE2,” by Doug Jones, on Tuesday, March 27, and “Alaska: Inside Passage,” by John Holod, on Tuesday, April 24.
Ray went through some interesting experiences in filming “Jerusalem: Sacred and Profane.” But the process of making his latest film, “Ten Questions for the Dalai Lama,” which has just been released and is being featured at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in Ray’s hometown, was one of the most amazing experiences he has had, Ray says.
His film about the Dalai Lama chronicles Ray’s trip to Dharamsala, India, where the Tibetan leader lives in exile and receives visitors from around the world. After a haphazard but harrowing process, he was granted an audience with the Dalai Lama, and was allowed to both ask him 10 questions, and film the encounter.
Ray has produced 12 travel films in places such as Israel, Bali, Borneo, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Syria, Iceland, and India. He has traveled, as a backpacker traveling light, to more than 35 countries, and everywhere he goes, he tries to film, if not for profit, at least for his own pleasure. He also teaches documentary film at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Ventura, California.
Ray, a fourth-generation Californian, was born and raised in Santa Barbara, a middle-class community about 90 miles north of Los Angeles. “It’s more of a northern California town than Southern,” he says. “It’s just a totally laid-back atmosphere, so very different from Los Angeles. I can’t stand that Los Angeles attitude.”
Becoming a travel filmmaker was a simple move for Ray. When he was in fifth grade, in 1967, he made his first film after missing several weeks of school while his parents took a vacation to Europe. When he came back, his teacher handed him a Super 8 camera and asked him to make a film.
‘It was much easier to make a movie than it would have been to take a test,” he says. The film, “What I Did on My Spring Vacation,” earned Ray his first award — an A. When it was time for college, he attended the film school at the University of California-Santa Barbara, where he graduated with a bachelor of fine arts in film studies.
Later, after he had attained some modest success working on Hollywood films — he even chauffeuered actor Jack Palance around for a year — Ray decided to scrap the rat race and go backpacking across Europe and Asia. “I realized that I didn’t want to be in Hollywood making bad movies,” he says. “I decided I wanted to go around with a backpack and just tell stories. I travel and make movies about culture and traveling. When this is no longer affordable, I’ll go get a real job.”
He hasn’t had to get a real job yet. With his wife, Sandy, who serves as his producer, Ray has traveled almost constantly since he was 25.
Ray does not profess to have any religious affiliation. He grew up “in a bland Presbyterian environment. My mother told me that the only difference between Presbyterians and Methodists is that Methodists like sprinkles on their donuts. We went to church for social purposes,” he says.
Nevertheless, Ray was always fascinated with religion and the belief systems of other people. “When I started traveling, I met people with many different, and interesting, religious beliefs. I was fascinated with how people apply their beliefs about the world without (me) embracing any particular one.”
In 2001, when Ray filmed “Jerusalem: Sacred and Profane,” he had already done 10 travel documentaries. He was approached by a producer from the Learning Channel, who had seen some of Ray’s work. “The TLC producer wanted to film all of these spots in Jerusalem, and they had applied for permits and had not gotten them,” Ray says. “He asked me if I would mind sneaking into Jerusalem and filming all of these places.” At first Ray did not want to go. “These people have not been getting along with each other for 3,000 years,” he says of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all of whom have holy sites in Jerusalem.
But Jerusalem “is a fascinating place to see. Historical sites are just piled up on each other there.” Ray says, adding that it wasn’t hard at all for him to get access for filming. “I filmed all three faiths in the city without much problem.”
Despite Jerusalem’s status as a holy city, Ray found that most people were not religious at all. “Most of the people there are very norma, nonreligious people who are trying to just go about their daily lives in peace. Really, the religious people have more in common with each other than those who are not religious.”
As for his favorite spiritual leader, Ray’s respect for the Dalai Lama comes from many places. “I just think he is the truth,” Ray says. “He lives on $10 a day, even though he has access to so many riches and resources. He lives in a humble monastery and wears simple clothes, and he speaks from the heart. There aren’t that many spiritual or political leaders, and he is both, who will speak the truth like that. Most are speaking as if they have talking points to consider, or if they are talking from a book.”
Adventures Abroad Film Series, Tuesdays, 10:30 a.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $10. www.StateTheatreNJ.org or 732-246-7469.
Tuesday, February 13, “Postcards from Italy,” Steve McCurdy.
Tuesday, March 6, “Jerusalem’s Sacred and Profane,” Rick Ray.
Tuesday, March 27, “Cruising the Orient on the QE2,” Doug Jones.
Tuesday, April 24, “Alaska’s Inside Passage,” John Holod.