Trouble In Tibet
New documentary showcases the repressive history of this tiny nation.
Thursday, April 8, 2004
If its clunky title suggests a dispassionately factual account of the history of Tibet, don’t be fooled. Tibet is a clarion cri de coeur on behalf of the Tibetan people, who’ve suffered under a brutal occupation by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army since 1949.
The statistics are staggering—the narration (by Martin Sheen) relates that 87,000 Tibetans were killed in one winter alone—but Tom Peosay’s film goes behind the statistics with a surprising wealth of original and archival footage, indubitably difficult to obtain.
Early in the film there are horrifying photographs and video of a peaceful demonstration that turns into a massacre of Buddhist monks. Peosay’s camera surveys the rubble of ancient monasteries terraced into the mountains, now forgotten victims of China’s Cultural Revolution; a bullet hole pierces the eye of a serene bodhisattva on a giant mural. Interweaving these images are interviews from Western travelers, Tibetan refugees, heads of state, culture scholars, and former prisoners. There are even some conservatives on board: Sen. Frank Wolfe (R-Virginia), and Reaganite think-tanker Jeanne Kirkpatrick.
The film adequately covers Tibet’s history, from its savage beginnings as warlord territory to its conversion to a peaceful nation that dedicated 85 percent of its resources to education, without losing its ideological momentum. And there’s definitely a pro-Tibetan ideology here, though various Chinese officials get some airtime. (In addition to Sheen, the voice talent roster includes some of Hollywood’s usual lefties, such as Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, and Ed Harris.)
Peosay makes his case quite clearly and convincingly, though some of the editing is choppy and the pedantic voiceover overstates its case from time to time. Likely these are rookie mistakes; Peosay is a videographer making his directorial debut, and he doesn’t always seem to trust his material to tell its own story. Just the same, Tibet is more than worthy viewing. What it lacks at times in elegance it possesses in intensity and feeling.
Lest someone question why Tibet is topical, Peosay draws a straight solid line between the repressive People’s Republic and the regime of Bush the Younger, slyly inviting comparison to the PRC’s draconian antiterrorist campaign from 1996—the “Strike Hard” initiative, which identified separatist monks as enemies of the state—and splicing in Bush’s congratulations to China on its entry into the World Trade Organization.
Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion [3 1/2 Stars]
Directed by Tom Peosay
Narration by Martin Sheen
(Not Rated, 104 min.)