Illusion and/or Reality 

My interest in the Silk Road and related topics led me recently to watch two series  – remarkably grand productions – on Netflix, “The Story of the Buddha”, a production from India, and “Marco Polo” a production from Hollywood. Both made a deep impression on me. Each told a story of historical periods, the first, a story of Buddha’s birth, life, teachings and death, 2500 years ago and the second, a story about the travels and experiences of Marco Polo, the 12th Century Venetian traveller in the spectacular court of Mongol Emperor, Kublai Khan. 

Both series are incredibly well produced and clearly went to great lengths to construct the reality of another time period with convincing power. How interesting that a massive, contemporary, high tech effort was responsible in constructing the remote past in convincing ways, supported by the elaborate sets, actors and their stellar performances, expert screenwriting and more, all to help the viewer to feel like they were watching/inhabiting a real story unfold in the present (or rather the past)…. 

The impressive ‘Marco Polo’ in its concept and production quality – of architecture, artefacts, costumes, and acting – on many levels  (granted, I don’t watch much Netflix generally) made me want to explore the context further. It revealed the incredible hard work each of the actors did to be able to give their spectacular performances including the main screenwriter, John Fusco’s, own career journey for years before in researching Chinese history and the Silk Road and his martial arts practice to be able to produce the writing that made such convincing enactment possible. With a 1000 people on the set daily, the elaborate production that made it possible behind the scenes to achieve this carefully constructed illusion that allows us to relive, a version of, history.

Anything created in the world is mixed in quality and this is true of the Marco Polo series as well. In today’s context, being associated with the Weinstein Bros as one of their productions brings up the topic of sexual misconduct even as the Harvey Weinstein trial is currently underway. And on another note, perhaps one of the same things that impressed me, the very diverse cast in a non-western setting, brought up a lot of questions of about the portrayal of such a topic in and by an industry that privileges mainstream, western and white stories and actors and there is a lot of animated discussion of this online related to the release of the series and if it was done well or not. Yet another layer emerges related to the possible alignment and disconnect between what is portrayed on screen and what is true off-screen.

This made me ponder: What is reality? What is illusion? Is reality what you see or is it merely a reflection through other people’s eyes….and what does it mean when reality in the present is orchestrated to build an illusion from the past. I am sure this is a question asked and answered by many philosophers. Certainly, the theater and film industry works with these concepts daily….

A few weekends ago, I was introduced by my artist friend Cecilia to the piece “Borges and I” in which with just a few words Jorge Luis Borges (or is it someone else?) writes a reflection about the distinction between the narrator and the person called Borges is. It is a fascinating, mind-bending, self-reflective piece….that questions who is the actor himself – the externally recognized author or the inner voice. The lucidity of the reflection itself is disconcerting and energizing and makes the reader question many things about self and the ephemerality of the world.

“The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.”

Are the films and the writing Illusion or reality or simultaneously, both?




University of Leeds Research Group “Reading the Fantastic”



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