Keep your eyes on the prize

A new documentary chronicles Tibetan history and the struggle for independence.

Gabriel Shapiro

Free Tibet!” is not a bumper sticker. It is not an empty slogan your hippie roommate plastered on his clothes and hackey sacks. It is not Richard Gere or countless other celebrities finding a good cause to support. “Free Tibet!” is the cry of an oppressed and exiled people who have suffered for too long already. “Free Tibet!” is the film’s message, and the filmmakers, shouting it as loud as they can, have produced a profoundly moving story that ties facts to emotions, matches faces to events, unites people with their struggle and connects us all to the ongoing and universal pursuit for human rights.

Despite its modern image as a once serene, now interrupted Shangri-La, Tibet’s history is not all rosy. Looking through the lens of Maoist ideology, it is easy to understand how the Chinese state saw the Tibetan way of life as repugnant. Society was sharply stratified and the peasants were not in control of their labor or products. But could this alone serve as motivation for the invasion by China’s People’s Liberation Army? Those possibilities are a start toward understanding what happened. Another part of the story concerns Mao’s belief that Tibet was part of a greater China, along with Mongolia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

When China invaded Tibet in 1949-50, their eventual success was a “fait accompli.” The Tibetan forces, while brave, were outnumbered and outgunned, and quickly overrun. What was less obvious at that time, however, was the shape of the Tibetan resistance. Few people would have predicted the global recognition the 14th Dalai Lama brought to his nation’s struggle. Fewer still might have guessed that the United States secretly armed and funded Tibet’s rebel factions from the mid-1950s through the opening of relations with China in the early 1970s.

At certain points throughout the film, the colorful, intricate images of sand mandalas paint the screen. The sand mandala could be the perfect metaphor for Tibet. Not because it represents the cessation of desire or the impermanence of all things, but because something so beautiful, so intricate, which takes a lot of time to create can be wiped away with a flick of the wrist.

The wrists being flicked are not China’s, but ours – we in the West whom millions have looked to for aid. We, the common Americans, in whose name so many atrocities – from children working in sweatshops to the carpet-bombing of entire cities – is carried out. We, who can never forget that the freedom we enjoy is not just an American right, but a human right, and if Tibetans can lose it, we can lose it too. Eternal vigilance is the cost of freedom; unfortunately, this vigilance has often failed to manifest itself in compassionate movements such as the boycotts that helped end apartheid.

As documentaries have gained popularity, they have broadened in scope. To some degree, this film covers the entire Tibetan history, its early government, its shift to Buddhism and so on until we arrive at the Chinese invasion. The original footage was shot over 10 years and several visits to Tibet by the filmmakers, but quite a bit of stock news footage, old interviews and still photos are also deployed effectively. The grand scale of the project might seem destined to lead to vagueness. However, there are essentially two movies, one focusing on a quick background history and the other centering on the post-Chinese invasion period. This division allows the filmmakers to spend most of their energy on Tibet’s recent history.

Anyone lucky enough to have stood at the foot of the Himalayas knows there is no sight quite as awe-inspiring. Those who have seen films and photos of Tibet, Nepal and other Himalayan regions also have a sense of this beauty. The imagery captured here is no exception, it is stunning. The astonishment brought by images of the Tibetan plateau’s natural beauty is only matched by the terror displayed in the depictions of cruelty and torture. The movie deals out both in their share, leading the audience through the vicissitudes of Tibetan life and never flinching.

The filmmakers effectively use the extensive interviews conducted for the film, ranging from that Dalai Lama to Chinese government officials to American academics and activists. There is a wide range of opinion concerning the issues the film advances, giving it a well-rounded, well-informed base for the pro-Tibetan politics that it wears on its sleeve.

From huge benefit concerts to violent clashes between police and monks in Lhasa, the movie highlights the forms of protest against the Chinese occupation. Traveling around the world and seeing the protests’ range is one of the most encouraging and informative features of this movie and the filmmakers have clearly taken great pains to display the many open avenues for voicing political dissent. The Dalai Lama’s commitment to non-violence takes a major role in the film, but there are also discussions of the growing frustration, especially among the youth, that have led Tibetan people to raise the possibility of a violent confrontation with China.

Compassion is a guiding principle in Buddhism; the Dalai Lama himself is believed to be the reincarnation of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of compassion. What does compassion mean for us on an issue that seems to be so far away? Perhaps, for a start, it means allowing ourselves to see a film such as this one and staying open to the possibility of being moved. Perhaps it means identifying on a universal level with people as part of a human family with common rights, hopes and responsibilities. Beyond entertainment, which this certainly is, “Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion” is a document of a critically important struggle that is currently going on. If we act, if we articulate a single message in millions of voices, if we truly have compassion, we can change the world. This life is precious, use it well.