By Aaron Cutler
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By Stephanie Zacharek
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It's interesting to see how conventional political assumptions get turned on their heads when it comes to the case of Tibet, a nation militarily dominated by China, which claims it as Chinese territory despite the fact that China treats the Tibetan people as a lesser class. Liberal Democrats and Greens, like Richard Gere and Martin Sheen, suddenly become rabid anti-communists and advocates for a society that favors religious expression in the public sphere. Conservative Republicans, like Presidents Bush Sr. and Jr., on the other hand, start espousing the opinion that we don't need to liberate an oppressed people from brutal dictatorship, but rather give the despotic leaders exactly what they want in the hope that commerce will bring freedom.
It would be quite stimulating if the new documentary Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion (the title refers to a mythical beast that appears on the outlawed Tibetan flag) were to get into this odd role reversal to a greater degree, but really the film is more of a primer for those who don't know anything on the subject -- if you've attended a Beastie Boys concert and picked up some free literature, chances are a substantial amount of this information is already known to you. Regardless, it's not every day you get to see a movie that brings the likes of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and the aforementioned Mr. Sheen together in reasonably common cause.
There are two items cited by rookie feature director Tom Peosay that will make you pay attention to the plight of Tibet. One is that, via torture, imprisonment, and Chairman Mao's environmentally unsound idea of forcing Tibetans to grow wheat instead of barley (resulting in famine), more Tibetans have died unjustly under Chinese rule than in the Nazi Holocaust and Stalinist purges combined. The other is that Chinese soldiers have been known to insert electric cattle prods into the vaginas of Buddhist nuns. If that's not enough to shock you out of complacency, what else is there? When Peosay films Chinese ambassadors reciting the party line that Tibet has always been part of China and the Dalai Lama is a dangerous radical, it's clear they're merely parroting a well-rehearsed speech from memory.
Despite the fact that Tibet has had international relations with other countries over the years, China's current claim is that the country has been part of China's domain since the 13th century, though most other historians would agree that Chinese rule dates only to 1949, when Mao's army attacked and invaded in what they dubbed the "peaceful liberation." The U.S. aided several Tibetan guerrillas for a time, but in hindsight it seems that what they wanted was merely to harass China, not to break Tibet free from it.
The film really picks up when it focuses on the current Dalai Lama, whose actual name is Tenzin Gyatso. You don't have to be Richard Gere to feel the man's charisma -- here is the rare religious leader bereft of forced solemnity or superiority complex. As narrator Sheen points out, Tibetans see religion as a source of fun and disdain pessimism as a weakness, which makes quite a refreshing and life-affirming change from the fire and brimstone of Pat Robertson or the flesh-rending sadomasochism of that Mel Gibson movie.
According to the film's press kit, 68 people were interviewed on camera, with 38 of those actually making the final cut. It feels like less somehow, possibly because Susan Sarandon translates for almost every non-English-speaking female interviewee. This is a misstep. Most likely Peosay favored dubbing over subtitles to get the widest possible audience, yet this is fundamentally an art-house documentary, and chances are a subtitle here or there wouldn't have alienated many viewers. Sarandon just strikes the wrong tone sometimes; in one notable instance, the onscreen subject gets tearful as Sarandon continues to translate in cool and even tones.
The most significant point the movie makes, especially given the current world climate, is that the people of Tibet, for the most part, do not want a military liberation. Their faith, and the fact that the central figure in said faith is walking the Earth today, keeps them committed to pacifism -- we are told Tibet is almost unique among oppressed cultures in its lack of terrorism. Nonviolent resistance is inherently a long-term strategy, but the Tibetans believe in reincarnation and are willing to wait things out for as long as necessary.
All that said, though, for a movie that took 10 years to make, this isn't a particularly breathtaking documentary. It'll get you concerned, but visually and thematically it doesn't offer anything drastically new. For those who don't have any kind of global worldview, however, it may have a vital enlightening effect, and that, after all, was probably the main intent.
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