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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Tibet documentary draws Chinese rebuke

June 21, 2010

After making films about Tibet for two decades, filmmaking couple Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam are used to upsetting the Chinese government. But even they were surprised this year. The Chinese consul drove from Los Angeles to Palm Springs to protest the inclusion of their latest documentary at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. When the festival refused to pull the film, the two mainland Chinese entries to the festival were withdrawn.

It made Sarin and Sonam's "The Sun Behind the Clouds" the must-see film of the festival. But Sarin says it was a double-edged sword.

"Chinese films are wonderful," she says, from Dharamsala, India. "And China is using its soft power. It managed to send a message to other festivals if they were considering films about Tibet."

In hindsight, it wasn't that unexpected. China was still smarting from the pro-Tibet protests that marred the Olympic torch relay. And Sarin and Sonam, who studied in the Bay Area in the '80s, came back to the region to film the protests. They remember running with their cameras, looking for the elusive torch.

"It was exciting to be filming," says Sarin. "But it was supercharged. This was one of the first times we were seeing large numbers of Chinese and Tibetans in exile all sharing the same space."

Sonam says he was startled to find that the Chinese protesters, even though they lived in the West, were "repeating the government line without question, talking about Tibet being a slave society."

In a way, that is the quandary at the heart of the film. Fifty years after the Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959, the Free Tibet concerts and bumper stickers have yielded little by way of actual change. "Fifty years might be considered a long time in the life of an individual," Samdhong Rimpoche, Tibet's prime minister in exile said on a visit to San Francisco last month. "But it's not long in the life of a nation."

That might be all very well for an evolved monk. But most Tibetans are just ordinary people. "People say, 'You are from Tibet. How cool. You must meditate,' " says Dechen Tsering, president of the Tibetan Association of Northern California. "But we don't necessarily meditate. We eat meat. We are not bodhisattvas. We are just struggling Buddhists."

The Dalai Lama's lectures fill auditoriums, even Central Park, but his Middle Way - autonomy within China instead of independence - has not yielded any concessions for his people from China. And the documentary captures a growing sense of restlessness and mounting frustration from Dharamsala to San Francisco, from Lhasa to Beijing.

It's not an easy conversation to capture on film. The Dalai Lama is not just a political leader of an exiled people, he is also His Holiness, a reincarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion. "Any hint of dissent is construed as an attack on him and you get blacklisted," says Sonam. "By the community. Not by His Holiness who has been saying Tibetans need to take responsibility for their future."

When Gandhi launched his non-violent movement against the British in India, he was not afraid to lead marches across parched fields of Gujarat to protest the salt tax, getting thrown into jail, embarking on hunger strikes. But the Dalai Lama is first a monk and then a political leader.

Gandhi led millions against a British minority. The Dalai Lama knows the math does not favor his people. When Tibetan activists in India decided to march toward Tibet in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, the Dalai Lama asked them to stop.

"It was a huge dilemma for the marchers," says Sonam who filmed that march along with his teenage son. "But they continued with the march. That was a very rare moment."

The adventure came to naught. The Indian police, as expected, blockaded the marchers in their campsite. Sonam and his son were almost arrested. Some of the most riveting moments in the film come from the scenes in that campsite. Monks argue about independence, break into long-forgotten dances from childhood.

"Some of them had escaped from Tibet not so long ago," says Sonam. "They really believed they were going back. They had sold their furniture and given up their belongings to go on that march to Tibet."

The documentary does have scenes from Tibet though neither Sonam nor Sarin could go there. (They did secretly film a dissident in Beijing.) For the Tibetan footage, they enlisted the help of a friend. But they told him to avoid filming monks and Chinese troops.

"We didn't want him to get into trouble," says Sarin. "People film in Tibet and consistently endanger people's lives. People end up in prison. Ours is only a film. We didn't want anyone to go to prison for it."

E-mail Sandip Roy at

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