History is full of shifting borders, colonialism and separatist movements and unfortunately the conflict between people is mostly either religiously motivated or over natural resources and topography of land – in other words, it is very difficult to take sides easily. The new documentary from Dirk Simon looks at the Tibetan movement to free Tibet from Chinese sovereignty and asks questions about who is keeping the movement from going forward.
The film was produced over a period of seven years as the filmmakers travel in and around Tibet to talk with dissidents and citizens in exile about the separatist movement and the negotiations (or lack of) with Chinese authorities. The film features interviews with the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Richard Gere (famously a practicing Buddhist) and 18th descendant of the Great Religious Kings of Tibet as well as a number of Chinese artists and Tibetan dissidents. The narrative of the film takes in the aforementioned exiled young king who is currently living in India, the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the protests that did, and didn’t, occur as well as numerous examples of Chinese violence towards the Tibetan people since 1949…
It is clearly the intentions of some documentary filmmakers to provides much needed context and insight into a land dispute and try to help ease tensions in a region, yet so often films such as these simply pick a side (almost always the perceived underdog) and highlight atrocities and injustices. This is, of course, admirable, yet it also means that the target audience will end up inevitably being people who already side with the separatists and wont be seen by anyone in the aggressor country, where change could occur.
The problem with When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun is that it is so obviously geared towards a Western audience. The highest names on the bill are Richard Gere (who is on screen for all of 50 seconds) and then the musicians Thom Yorke and Damien Rice. Also, amazingly, the Dalai Lama is given totally unnecessary subtitles, presumably for the American audience. The film therefore falls somewhere between a beautiful travel documentary, complete with montages of landscapes and landmarks, and a motivational promotional video aimed at advertising entrance into a non-profit organization, that dispenses of historical context.
There is a scene in which the Tibetan monks undertake some kind of a pilgrimage in order to consult their oracle figure. The oracle is dressed in a lavish costume and headdress and is surrounded by hundreds of monks and pilgrims as they watch him undergo a spiritual trance before making his declaration. The scene would be an incredible insight into an age-old and wise traditional ceremony, if it weren’t for the monks all capturing the spectacle on their smartphones. He is literally surrounded by glowing screens as he performs his miraculous divination.
This scene inadvertently summaries a potentially controversial argument that is never professed in the film: Do the Tibetans need saving from their own superstitions and religious dogma? Without taking sides in the wider arguments of Tibetan political autonomy, one thought that is never expressed in the documentary is that in one sense it could be in the Tibetans favour to be dragged into modernity – albeit without the violence that is perpetrated by the Chinese military. The only reason that it is possible to profess this as a conceivable statement is that the film does not provide enough context or history to fully explain the Chinese motives. The only Chinese voices on screen are artists who live outside the country and a few angry tourists that only voice a caricature of Chinese/Tibetan antipathy. The aggressors (or The Dragon) are not given any chance to explain themselves and the film takes for granted that the viewer will already sympathise with the Tibetans.
There are some interesting facts in the films that highlight the size of the problem. For example, the population of Tibet is only roughly 6 million, which is vastly different in comparison with their 1.4 billion Chinese neighbours, and occording to this film 1.2 million Tibetans have died at the hands of the Chinese government. Another fact is that Tibet banished capital punishment in 1912, as opposed to the Chinese who still use it to this day. These statistical figures have the most damning impact on the nature of the brutality and give the films its most legitimate moments of outrage and emotion.
In terms of filmmaking, the film is undeniably beautiful. The number of different film stocks and camera lens show the lengths and amount of time that the filmmakers spent trying to capture the country in all of its glory. Whatever the film struggles with in terms of narrative and contextual analysis, it is an incredibly competent piece of filmmaking that shows a beautiful country in unnecessary turmoil.
The problem is that the viewer is inevitably left with the opinion that the Tibetans are a mostly peaceful people (which they may well be) and the Chinese side comprises of evil overlords (which they in no doubt have been at times), which is almost certainly the opinion in which the viewer had at the beginning of the process.
(This review was originally posted on the now defunct SubtitledOnline.com)