Beyond Vassar

Focusing on Tibet

By Samantha Soper '91

“There is nothing more rewarding,” said documentary filmmaker Isaac Solotaroff ’92 about his chosen profession—especially for someone with “an insatiable curiosity and a stomach for the financial insecurities of engaging in a series of entrepreneurial ventures with minimal financial payoff.” Beyond that, he added, “I find people endlessly fascinating. When you start to dig a little you discover everyone has a story that contains nuggets of truth — or at least a profound insight—and more often than not they will share it with you, given the opportunity.”

Solotaroff discovered the power of storytelling when charged with teaching high school history in a small town outside of Oakland, California, shortly after graduation. “The way into these kids’ minds was by developing characters and narratives,” he said. “I tried to make Abraham Lincoln, John Rockefeller, and other iconic figures of American history into living, breathing people with psychologies and motives to which kids could relate.” After several years of teaching, Solotaroff abandoned his plan to become a school principal and enrolled in multimedia studies classes at San Francisco State University, where he took a film and video production class. That class led to Solotaroff’s documentary about the community where he had taught for three years. “It was like creating stories for my students, but with a whole new set of tools,” he said.

His academic experience at Vassar proved useful to Solotaroff in his new field. “When you are editing a documentary you are piecing together images, sound bites from interviews, and music, and creating scenes from disparate elements, which hopefully connect to the scenes that proceed and follow it.” It’s an exercise Solotaroff compares to the process of writing academic papers for his philosophy major at Vassar — “drawing on different sources and finding away to make connections between different ideas and points of view.”

Isaac Soltaroff '92
Isaac Soltaroff '92
In 1999 Solotaroff completed his first feature film, Belief Amended, Faith Revealed, which chronicles the historic meetings in 1990 between the Dalai Lama and a group of rabbis and Jewish scholars. The film was named by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as one of the outstanding documentaries that year. Two years later Los Romeros: The Royal Family of the Guitar, which traces the history of classical guitar through one of the premier families of music, was broadcast nationally on PBS and nominated for a best-biography Emmy. But it is Solotaroff’s third and latest film, Visioning Tibet, that has meant the most to him. The subject of the film is Marc Lieberman, whom Solotaroff first met while making Belief Amended, Faith Revealed.

In 1995 Lieberman, an ophthalmologist, founded the Tibet Vision Project, a program dedicated to eradicating preventable blindness in Tibet, which has the highest rate of untreated cataract blindness in the world. By training local doctors and health professionals to perform cataract procedures, Lieberman’s efforts have restored sight to nearly 4,000 Tibetans. “I thought it was a powerful story of one person making a difference in one of the most isolated and exotic parts of the world,” said Solotaroff. “Building medical capacity in a poor country so that they are self-sufficient in terms of their medical care is the truest form of development.”

Solotaroff started working on the film in 2000, but it was after September 11, 2001, that “it went from being a project to something bordering on obsession,” he recalled. “I wanted to find away to relate a story of American engagement in the developing world that showed how our wealth, knowledge, and idealism can be brought to bear on preventable suffering.” For four years, in between producing and editing commercial and marketing projects to pay the bills, Solotaroff traveled with Lieberman to Tibet to work on the project. The final film, completed in 2005, has been shown at over 20 U.S. and international film festivals, garnering praise along the way — including from the Dalai Lama and the Washington Post — and will air nationally on PBS in September.

For more information on Solotaroff's work, visit his website at