A trace of condescension detracts from the powerful images in Tom Peosay’s documentary about Tibet and its struggle with China for autonomy. It’s present mostly in the initial portrayal of Tibetans as simple-minded ever-smiling people, whose religious festivals and rituals represent so much exotic local colour and pageantry. It set me on edge until I ascertained the film’s motive – educating other Americans about the political situation and associated human rights abuses in Tibet.The snow lion is a mythic beast that appears on the Tibetan flag, a flag that the Chinese have outlawed in the country. To declare yourself a Tibetan national is a political act, likely to land you in a Chinese prison and subject to torture. The film opens with harrowing footage of recent Chinese military attacks on Buddhist monasteries and the shooting and capture of Tibetan monks. After a brief introduction to the history and geography of the country, Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion takes a broadly chronological journey through Tibet’s relationship with China over the last century.
This documentary is by turns inspiring and confronting, but always sobering. The strongest image is arguably that of a Buddhist monk self-immolating – setting himself alight as the ultimate expression of peaceful protest. Peosay and writers Sue Peosay and Victoria Mudd convincingly outline China’s strategy of assimilation for Tibet: colonising the country by flooding it with Chinese people and products and eradicating the Tibetan language and way of life. Development in Tibet goes hand-in-hand with cultural destruction. There are haunting images of marginalised and unemployed Tibetans living in shanties in their own country, stricken by poverty and disease and struggling to find food. These pictures have added resonance since they are not so different to the problems faced by indigenous peoples closer to home (Australia, America).
Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion offers a traditional mix of existing footage and talking-heads interviews. Frustratingly, we don’t learn much about many of the Western interviewees. These are mostly academics and Peosay presents them as Tibetan and Buddhist “experts”. Do they identify as Buddhist themselves? What first hand knowledge do they have of Tibet?
Worse, the responses and sound grabs of the Tibetans are mostly “dubbed” rather than subtitled. This technique effectively removes their voices. To soften the blow, and prove more palatable to a Western (American) audience, sympathetic Hollywood stars like Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Ed Harris lend their voices to read the translations (Martin Sheen is chief narrator). This is sometimes unintentionally distracting, such as a Buddhist nun shouting “free Tibet!” in Susan Sarandon’s voice.The filmmakers make a commendable effort to include at least some comments from the Chinese perspective, though a pro-Tibet stance is the project’s goal. It certainly achieves its purpose: only the stoniest of hearts could remain unmoved after witnessing the courage of this small country in asserting itself against one of the most powerful on the planet. As a documentary, Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion is laudable for conveying information with compassion.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sydney Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Seattle Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.