By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Given the 50 years of tension between the Chinese government and Tibetans, China can’t be expected to support the documentary film, “The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom.” According to an article in Salon magazine by Andrew O’Hehir, Chinese film officials responded to the film’s inclusion in the Palm Springs International Film Festival by yanking two high-profile Chinese films from the festival’s lineup.
“The Sun Behind the Clouds” is co-directed by a husband-and-wife team, Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam.
Sarin was born in New Delhi and Sonam was born in Darjeeling, India, to Tibetan refugee parents. The film depicts the Tibetan people and culture as increasingly divided in more ways than one.
Geographical separation makes up the most obvious split between the Tibetans who fled Chinese occupation following the Lhasa Uprising in 1959 and those who stayed behind and accepted Chinese rule. As the film makes clear, Tibetans face equally deep divisions along political lines.
The 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, favors what he calls the “middle way approach” to the Tibetan question. He is willing to accept Chinese rule of Tibet as long as the region, under China, retains meaningful autonomy and preservation of its culture.
The middle way approach made the Dalai Lama popular all over the world, except in China and among many of the Tibetan people. In Beijing, Chinese officials accuse the Dalai Lama of secretly wanting Tibetan independence.
Meanwhile, many Tibetans and Tibetan refugees on the Indian side of the border feel disappointed by the Dalai Lama’s retreat from his earlier demands during the 1980s for full independence.
The film partially follows the march of refugees undertaken in March 2008, from India to the Tibetan border. The march was cannily timed to call attention to Tibet when the Olympics kept all eyes on China.
“Sun” comes to life as the cameras follow the marchers over a 2,500-kilometer walk across bridges, ridges, mountain paths, and fields. The party keeps in touch with the global debate over the United States’ Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America’s Tibet service. The film switches between footage of the radio studios to the march taking place far away. This underscores the importance of media in spreading information and opinion on the situation.
The march takes up one-third of the film. The rest of the film is heavily composed of commentary. It’s a measure of the fascinating issues involved and as a result, this approach never becomes boring. Even if the images seem predictable, the debates are enthralling.
Even the Dalai Lama, of all people, seems uncertain at times. His intimate interview shows a man struggling to stay positive, as he hangs his head wearily at times. He acknowledges that he disapproved of the march to the border, but he says he was powerless to stop it. The Dalai Lama admits that all the reverence and love he gets is undercut by his awareness that many Chinese consider him a criminal.
Despite its clunky construction, “Sun” is worth seeing. You won’t look at the people, the issues, or the fate of the Tibetan people the same way afterwards. ♦
“The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom” plays April 16-22 at SIFF Cinema, 400 9th Avenue N. at Seattle Center. Filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam will be in attendance at the screenings for April 16–18. For prices, show times, and more information, call 206-633-7151 or visit www.siff.net.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.