The Loneliest Monk
A new documentary links Tibet's struggle for freedom to human rights struggles around the world.
Thursday, May 11, 2000
What does a 6-year-old Tibetan boy have to do with the "troubles" in Northern Ireland or the Holocaust? In the eyes of Menlo Park-based filmmakers Robin Garthwait and Dan Griffin, Gedun Choekyi Nyima is a fitting poster child not just for Tibet''s struggle for religious freedom and independence, but for the struggles of oppressed peoples everywhere.
Garthwait and Griffin''s new documentary on the boy, Tibet''s Stolen Child, will be screened on Friday at Monterey Peninsula College. Both filmmakers (a wife and husband team) will be on hand to discuss the 60-minute film. So will Rep. Sam Farr, and a group of Tibetan monks and nuns who are participating in a walk from San Francisco to San Diego to draw attention to Tibet''s plight.
The film tells the story of how, in May 1995, the Dalai Lama identified then-6-year-old Gedun Choekyi Nyima as the 10th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, Tibet''s second most important spiritual leader. Just days later, the Chinese government spirited the boy and his family away to an unknown location and then selected and installed another boy--the government''s own choice--as Panchen Lama.
Tibetans reject this second boy as nothing more than a puppet of the Chinese State. They''re also growing increasingly concerned that, because the authentic Panchen Lama is not receiving the rigorous education required of Tibet''s high lamas, he will never be able to assume his spiritual leadership role if he is not soon given back to the monastery. The Chinese government has denied all requests for access to Gedun Choekyi Nyima.
In the film, the boy''s abduction is portrayed as just the latest atrocity the Chinese government has inflicted on the Tibetan people. Explains film narrator Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek fame), the Chinese communists may have gone into Tibet in 1949 with the well-intentioned goal of "liberating" its population from what they deemed to be an oppressive, religious monarchy of sorts. But the Tibetans never asked to be liberated, and in a perverse twist of fate, China''s continued attempts to force this western province into the Chinese fold are decimating the Tibetan population, as well as destroying its ancient religion.
More than 6,000 of Tibet''s monasteries, the film tells us, have been destroyed by the Chinese. Some one in six Tibetans have been killed. Thanks to the Chinese government''s population resettlement policies, Tibetans are now a minority in their own land.
That''s where Northern Ireland and the Holocaust come in, as well as the struggles against apartheid and the Indonesian government''s oppressive rule over East Timor. To put Tibet''s predicament in a more international, universal context, Garthwait and Griffin wove through their film outtakes from original footage of Nobel Peace Prize laureates talking about these different struggles. The interviews offer plenty of food for thought.
"Tolerance of difference goes to the heart of conflict everywhere in the world," states John Hume in Tibet''s Stolen Child. Hume received a Nobel Prize in 1998 for his leadership toward a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Likening the Chinese annexation of Tibet to England''s colonization of Ireland, Hume says "what people have to learn is that difference is natural. There''s not two people in the whole world who are the same. The answer to difference is not to fight about it. It''s to respect it."
Says Holocaust survivor and 1986 Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel in the film, "Tibet is a tragedy, an insult to human decency... The fact that a religious community is being oppressed and persecuted is something that every single person in the world who has any religious faith--any religious feeling for people who have faith--should speak up about."
Mairead Maguire, the aunt of three children who died in Northern Ireland''s violence, points to the importance of nonviolence, compassion and forgiveness--even in the face of conflict.
South Africa''s Archbishop Desmond Tutu discusses the importance of international support for freedom struggles. "We in South Africa are quite clear," he says. "We would not have succeeded--certainly not as comprehensively or as quickly--without the support of the international community."
In recent years, Free Tibet rock concerts and celebrity attention from the likes of Richard Gere, Sting and Goldie Hawn have done a lot to raise global awareness of the situation in Tibet. But Tibet supporters are not drawn by celebrity glitz alone. Tibet''s unique strain of Buddhism offers a philosophy that appeals to people who are "disenchanted with other forms of spirituality," explains Rich Campbell, a member of the Central Coast Friends of Tibet executive committee.
Garthwait herself has become a student of Tibetan Buddhism. She explains that she didn''t know anything about the religion when she was first asked to film the Dalai Lama giving a speech at UC Berkeley in 1994. After the talk, and after spending days in her editing suite with the Dalai Lama''s words and voice, she says she began to feel that she could "offer more." In addition to studying Tibetan Buddhism, she has made several films about Tibet, and she''s involved with the International Campaign for Tibet. Garthwait says she feels herself "turning from a filmmaker into an activist."
Benjamin Cox, director of the San Francisco to San Diego walk, says that, in addition to his outrage over what''s happening in Tibet, there were two things that drew him to get involved with the Free Tibet movement. "If you meet Tibetans, there''s a sense of community that just isn''t in our community," he says. He''s also awed by the Tibetan people''s compassion and capacity for forgiveness.
"Every Tibetan knows someone who''s been killed in the struggle for their country," he says. "If it happened to you, you can imagine you would be bitter." But not the Tibetans, he says. "They''re still happy, loving, warm people."
Tibet''s Stolen Child will be screened Friday, 7pm, at Monterey Peninsula College in Lecture Forum 102. After the screening there will be a Q &A with filmmakers Robin Garthwait and Dan Griffin and a conversation with the Tibetan peace walkers. For more information call 375-1220.