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FRANZ REICHLE: On the Making of "MONTE GRANDE: what is life?"
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The Film 'MONTE GRANDE – what is life?' developed directly out of work on my last film, DAS WISSEN VOM HEILEN (THE KNOWLEDGE OF HEALING). By confronting issues of health and illness from the perspective of Tibetan medicine and Buddhist philosophy, I discovered completely new dimensions to the notion of what life is, or could be, and where it would make sense for us to take a closer look. I became interested in the connection and interaction between body and mind through consciousness. At the same time I was fascinated by the ethics, countenance, and the sense of responsibility and respect for others that was so clearly and salutarily evident among the doctors I observed while making 'The Knowledge of Healing'. I wanted to continue researching in this area. I imagined entering the cinema and enjoying images and sounds that, without commentary, would make life appear to be rich and meaningful. One should be stimulated in ways that are profound, factual and not esoteric. One should investigate phenomena such as the relationship between mind and body, spirituality or death.

'It will be my most ambitious project yet,' I wrote in an application for funding. Admittedly I had a good feeling about it at the time, but while working on the film I was still anxious as to whether I'd actually succeed in finding a viable way of realizing my vision. And whether I could deal with these demanding and sometimes wild themes while at the same time creating a simple straightforward film that would appeal to a wide audience.

In the course of my research I decided that the main figures in the film would be four scientists from four continents. They would all know each other, would all be leading figures in their respective fields, and would all -- in quite different ways -- be involved in research into life: an Italian chemist, a Chinese philosopher, an American science historian and a Chilean neurobiologist. Then something unforeseeable happened that proved later to lend a fundamental strength to the whole project:

Francisco J. Varela, Chilean, neurobiologist, consciousness researcher, one of the world's leading cognitive scientists, one of the four main figures in my film but the last I began working with, became ill. Some months earlier we had arranged to meet in February in a village in the north of Chile, in the middle of the Andes, that you won't find on any map: Monte Grande. Then I lost all contact with him. I travelled nevertheless halfway around the world to make the appointment as arranged, rented a car in Santiago and took the Transamericana north through the desert to this little place called Monte Grande. There I found out that Francisco Varela had arrived the day before and was very ill, and that is was therefore uncertain whether I would be able to meet him.

Several years earlier Francisco Varela had developed a malignant tumour as a result of having Hepatitis C, a new disease at the time that is still incurable today. His liver had begun to fail and he was preparing himself for certain death when he received a liver transplant, practically at the last possible minute. He lived for several more years, with some complications, before the tumour returned. The operation was unsuccessful. He didn't respond to the first course of chemotherapy and his kidneys failed. So many of his relatives came together in Monte Grande in order to be together again with 'Pancho,' as they had called him lovingly since he was a child, and to say their final farewells. No one knew how much longer he had to live.

The next day I was allowed to meet him briefly -- alone and without the camera -- in Monte Grande, his most important 'place of reference' as he once called it. He was very weak and could only whisper, yet he was radiant and pleased that I had undertaken such a long trip despite the uncertainty as to his whereabouts. He promised that if he started feeling better I could visit him with my small video camera.

I got to know the family and was surprised by the simplicity, warmth and openness I encountered. I had complete access and could move around freely. We had intense deep conversations for which I remain thankful to this day. I was allowed to record everything. They told me stories about the village, the family, work, personal relationships, the putsch; and above all about dealing with those on the left and the right within the family, and about the acceptance and respect of both. Francisco was on the left and had wanted as a scientist in Chile to participate in the building of a modern socialist state under Allende.

The day before I had to leave Monte Grande, Francisco regained some strength thanks to a neighbour's herb tea preparation. I was outside filming when he called me to the house and I was able to spend some time with him, without asking any questions. Naturally I had many and urgent questions that were specifically for Francisco Varela, the unique mastermind and co-founder of new hypotheses that will preoccupy us and provoke changes well into the 21st century. Francisco was bedded down in a couch on the veranda and was ready for a conversation. I requested a single question, which he granted me with an understanding smile. 'Francisco, what is special about Monte Grande and what significance does this place have for you?' He started talking about Monte Grande, about his childhood and the discoveries of his youth; and his eyes began to shine. He stopped occasionally for short breaks. He told me about his whole life, like a legacy, with all the most important stages, with his profound meditation experience. Again and again he returned to Monte Grande and continued talking about it for about the length of a cassette. The meaning of this place couldn't be shattered even with an atom bomb.

When I thought again about what Francisco had been telling me I realized that he had barely mentioned science. And when he had talked of science it was as if it were something normal, not something special; just something one can do like anything else. That was wonderful to hear from this important and highly regarded scientist and systems theorist; someone who had spent his entire life applying himself to one central question: How do the body and mind come together in one entity and how do they interact with one another? This was like a gift for me, and a kind of confirmation that my decision to base the film around one main figure only -- Francisco Varela -- was correct. I could approach him with all the fundamental and detailed questions I had prepared for this project, but in addition he had a wealth of personal experience he could refer to when discussing these things. But it was truly crazy: Francisco had come to Monte Grande to die, while I had come there because I wanted to make a film only with him. Was there no hope of recovery? Francisco and his family gave me their approval and their trust to use even the most personal of my video takes for the film, which had the working title of 'What is Life?'. But this wasn't enough for a film that I imagined as having a dense and interwoven structure.

When I was back in Santiago I met Francisco Varela's first important teacher and later his partner, Humberto Maturana, one of the founders of the philosophical theory of constructivism (Konstruktivismus). In their most famous joint work, The Tree of Knowledge, they put forward, in a popular science way, the idea of life as a self-creating system. Life is not, as has previously been thought, and as Darwin would have had us believe, something primarily controlled from outside, but rather something self governing. They adopted the term autopoiesis for this idea. A self-governing, self-creating, living system. This new concept of life, which came out of the field of biology, is influential for other thinkers in other areas. For example the sociologist Niklas Luhmann applied the concept of autopoiesis directly to social systems.

A few weeks later Francisco Varela's health had improved considerably. After he had completed another course of chemotherapy, we met again at his home in Paris. In the mid 1980s Jean-Pierre Dupuy of CREA had invited him to Paris where he conducted research, led several study groups at the university, and led research projects at CNRS. We had intense, profound and very personal discussions, all of which I recorded. And we confidently planned further meetings in Chile and at a place where he meditated in the South of France. Little did we know that these conversations in Paris were to be the last that were ever recorded.

In the 1980s Francisco Varela was one of the main founders of Mind & Life (, a forum for discussion that brought together a group of scientists and His Holiness the Dalai Lama about once every two years. They endeavoured on the one hand to compare western research findings with the discoveries of Buddhist teachings and to pursue new directions for research, and on the other hand, to give new impulses to the Buddhist tradition. In May 2001 Francisco Varela was scheduled to present his latest scientific experiments in the presence of the Dalai Lama in Wisconsin USA. The investigations represented an important part of his scientific work as a whole, and of his personal development. But due to a sudden deterioration in his health, Varela sent Antoine Lutz, his Ph.D. student at the time, to give the presentation at the Mind & Life meeting in America. We recorded the event with several cameras and transmitted a live mix via the Internet so that Francisco could witness the proceedings from his deathbed in Paris. (These recordings were incorporated into the complementary TV film MIND AND LIFE). The Dalai Lama also took this opportunity on the last day of the meeting to say a few personal words to his 'dear friend and spiritual brother,' whose achievements he will never forget. Six days later Francisco Varela died in his flat in Paris at the age of just 54.

Francisco Varela's life began in Monte Grande and he returned again and again to this stony yet fertile place that somehow resembled an oasis from the biblical 'promised land'. Monte Grande became a metaphor for me, and for the film, so to speak. A protective and giving environment - the Monte Verità, but also the hill of Sisyphus, to be overcome.

After Francisco Varela's death I wanted to talk to with his friends and relatives in order to fill any gaps that remained and to finish my film. Out of these interviews, Francisco's last wife, Amy Cohen Varela, a literary critic and psychoanalyst, became a key figure in the film. Not only was she Varela's partner for many years, she also worked with him as co-author on many projects and publications. In Vienna I managed to meet one of Varela's precursors and the father of cybernetics, the 90-year-old (since deceased) Heinz von Foerster (

Most of the projects started by Francisco Varela were continued after his death, though some had to be discontinued due to the enormous void left by his absence. For example the search for a new definition of science was temporarily put on hold.

'MONTE GRANDE what is life?' ended up being anything but a linear biographical portrait. It also became more than a one-theme documentary. It is a cinematic attempt to represent what, from my viewpoint, Francisco Varela was working on and what he lived and realised towards the end of his life: embodiment. Thus the film begins with sections that are structured into the personal and the theoretical. These strands become interwoven with each other and with aspects of everyday life, illness and approaching death. Francisco Varela's hypotheses, theories and reflections on his own life, which are presented in the film, offer us important clues as to how why and how we can develop our minds in order to arrange living and living together in a more intense and attractive manner. He understood his role as a scientist as existing within this ethical context.

Franz Reichle, September 2004

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