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    Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion

    Dangers in a strange land

    "Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion" makes the plight of Chinese-dominated Tibet palpable with an intimate look at the people living under not only military repression but economic desperation.


    Timing is everything. The theatrical release of Tom Peosay's new documentary "Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion" couldn't be more auspiciously planned. Not only does its arrival in New York coincide with the Dalai Lama's highly anticipated visit, adding to the city's welcome; with any luck, the film will garner some of the attendant media coverage and win audiences across the country. This it deserves, not because it's riding a wave of American fascination with Buddhism and Tibetan culture, but because its depiction of the bravery and determination of three generations of Tibetans living in exile challenges audiences to look beyond the lure of the exotic, and develop an understanding of where the U.S. stands in relation to this beleaguered country.

    Directed by: Tom Peosay.
    Written by: Victoria Mudd, Sue Peosay.
    Featuring: Robert Ford, John F. Avedon, Stephen Batchelor, Robert Thurman, Wei Jingsheng.
    Narrated by: Martin Sheen.
    Voices by: Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Ed Harris, Shirley Knight, Edward Edwards.

    Related links: Official site
    Produced by Maria Florio and Victoria Mudd (Academy Award winners for their documentary "Broken Rainbow") and Tom and Sue Peosay, and scripted by Mudd and Sue Peosay, "Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion" is a seamless blend of the epic and the personal. Its genesis was Tom Peosay's journey to Tibet as a tourist and mountaineer in 1987, during which time he and other visitors witnessed the rioting in Lhasa that followed several pro-independence rallies led by Buddhist monks and nuns. The Communist Chinese occupiers quickly and brutally subdued the ethnic Tibetans, for whom writing or saying "I am a Tibetan," displaying the snow lion-emblazoned national flag, or possessing photos of the Dalai Lama are punishable as criminal acts. This experience propelled a team led by Peosay — a director of photography for PBS, A&E, Discovery and MSNBC — to nine trips over ten years back through the region, and also Nepal and India.

    Because many of the facts they present have been extensively recorded in other media, the film initially feels like it's preaching to the choir. Voiceover talent is drawn from the A-list of Hollywood anti-war activists: Martin Sheen narrates, and Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, along with Ed Harris and Shirley Knight, eloquently deliver translations of Tibetan survivors' testimony. The experts interviewed include noted authors and travelers Robert Ford, John F. Avedon, Stephen Batchelor and Robert Thurman, who is easily the most recognizable Western authority on Buddhism, and enjoys a high hip quotient as well. No surprise it's Thurman (father of Uma) who pinpoints why Tibetan culture is so threatening, and has proved so intransigent to the rulers in Beijing: "Buddha didn't found a religion; he was a teacher whose greatest contribution was that freedom [from desire, the cause of all human suffering] is possible. I can attain it. You can attain it."

    Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion  
    It is in illustrating the force and scope of that idea, as embodied in Tibetan Buddhism and resistance, that Peosay's film derives its strength, both as an agenda documentary and ethnography. As a travelogue it not only takes us into a remote area of the world closed for centuries to outsiders (and still immensely difficult to enter), it provides an inner tour of the soul of a people threatened with extinction.

    One of Mao Tse-tung's first actions after coming to power in 1949 was to send the People's Liberation Army into Tibet, a vast region Beijing falsely claimed was always part of China. Roughly the top half of the country was absorbed into China; the lower half, containing the capitol of Lhasa and the palaces and theocratic government of the Dalai Lama, became, in name only, the Tibetan Autonomous Region. At first, the occupying forces were instructed to behave in a respectful and helpful manner. Hospitals and schools were built, and construction of roads began across Tibet's daunting topography. But it soon became clear these services were not intended primarily for the Tibetans' benefit.

    China's interests in Tibet are strategic and mercenary. With the annexation of Tibet, Beijing's reach now extends directly to the border with India, its chief rival Asian superpower. As the movie reminds us, together China and India represent almost half the human race; both are struggling to emerge from poverty, and both are in the league of nuclear nations. Atop the Himalayas, the Tibetan plateau affords large wilderness areas for dumping nuclear materials. The world's highest mountain range is also the location of the headwaters of all important Asian rivers. And the Chinese have for centuries regarded Tibet's huge reserves of precious minerals as ripe for exploitation.

      Marketplaces that used to be hubs of Tibetan commerce have been replaced by Chinese stalls. Starving, dirty, bedraggled children wander the streets, their eyes haunting, their sadness palpable, their future unimaginable.
    Hence the network of roads, which in addition to allowing ready access to the border are now being used by China's largest export to Tibet, the Chinese themselves. Enticed by economic opportunity and incentives (a Chinese colonist in Tibet can earn three times what he would in China), the Chinese are arriving in such droves that, if their progress is left unchecked, within roughly a generation they will significantly outnumber native Tibetans. The footage gathered by the filmmakers of this cultural displacement is heartbreaking. We see Chinese civilians having their photos snapped atop tanks in front of the Potala Palace. Marketplaces that used to be hubs of Tibetan commerce have been replaced by Chinese stalls. Religious festivals are co-opted by the presence of military parades. Denied education, which is being privatized and conducted entirely in Chinese, most Tibetans cannot find employment, and are increasingly relegated to the slums that mushroom amid razed buildings. Starving, dirty, bedraggled children wander the streets, their eyes haunting, their sadness palpable, their future unimaginable.

    Thus what was left unfinished by the Cultural Revolution — with its destruction of 6,000 monasteries, their irreplaceable artifacts, and even more priceless, thousands of their inhabitants — now continues apace with the relentless march of China's new world economy. What a contradiction: Communist totalitarianism propped up by free-market synergy with the West. When the film examines America's complicity with the Chinese occupiers, the paradox is so revolting it hurts. A onetime Cold War-era provider of covert CIA aid to Tibetan freedom fighters, the U.S. gave enough help to Lhasa to harass the Chinese, but not to win the struggle. It shifted its policy in 1971 during Henry Kissinger's efforts toward normalization with Red China. American corporate access to China's vast market potential was paid for by betraying Tibet and withdrawing support. How richly ironic that America continues, in both intellectual and pop cultural forums, to embrace the Dalai Lama and the cause of Tibetans, while big business as usual wins the day. According to the film, fully $87 billion of our trade deficit can be chalked up to U.S. capital investment in China.

    Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion  
    This would all sound too dreary if it were not for the sustaining religious and ethical beliefs of Tibetan Buddhists. Interviews with survivors of forced labor camps, of torture and ethnic cleansing, shed light on the character of a nation. Transplanted to sanctuary in northern India, young Tibetan refugees receive schooling in Dharamsala; some are even sent on alone, at great risk to their families remaining in Tibet. And the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, remains Tibet's champion and ambassador to the world.

    Although many felt betrayed when Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, sought a rapprochement with China in stating his willingness to settle for true autonomy rather than independence, the realpolitik of his stance exhibits his grasp of both temporal and spiritual needs. A new militant generation of Tibetans in exile might indeed eventually prevail through violent rebellion in making the Chinese occupation of Tibet too expensive to be viable, but at what cost to the Tibetans? Some 1.2 million are already dead in the wake of the PLA.

    Any cause for optismism resides in currents within Chinese society itself, such as greater literacy, the devotion to lamas practiced by increasing numbers of Chinese who live beyond the watchful eyes of Beijing, and the efforts of Chinese human-rights activists such as Wei Jingsheng (the dissident now in exile in the U.S. after almost two decades in Chinese prison). In an interview he confides, "Many people have talked to me and said, there are so many problems faced by the Chinese people — why are you spending your time to also talk about the Tibetan issue? My answer is that this1  . . .is a problem for all of us living today on this earth." Is it possible, as envisioned by Tibetan resistance fighter Lhasang Tsering, for the Tibetans and Chinese to cease being enemies, and even become friends? For the sake of global karma, let us pray.

    SEPTEMBER 27, 2003

    Reader comments on Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion:

  • Cry of the Snow Lion   from Dundub Lama, Nov 8, 2003
  • Truth in Tibet   from H Yang, Sep 22, 2004
  • Re: Truth in Tibet   from julie, Nov 24, 2004
  • Re: Truth in Tibet   from Ian R, Dec 25, 2004
  • Re: Truth in Tibet   from Marco, Mar 21, 2008
  • Re: Truth in Tibet   from dorjee, Jun 30, 2009
  • [no subject]   from , Feb 2, 2004
  • WARNING! DO NOT SEE!   from Anonymous, Feb 27, 2004
  • Re: WARNING! DO NOT SEE!   from Dharamsala, Sep 15, 2004
  • Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party   from Georgia, Sep 6, 2006

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