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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Fifty Years Out of Tibet
by Donald Levit

There is no question which side of the Tibet-Dalai Lama-China border The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom is on. The estimable service of Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin’s advocacy journalism documentary lends clarity to that dispute. Our news-byte overload -- that forgets yesterday -- already lost the film as storm center when its inclusion in the Palm Springs International Film Festival prompted Beijing to withdraw its official entry, City of Life and Death; and, aside from diehards, not many recall the Dalai Lama’s exit through a White House back door after conferring with a President tiptoeing around Chinese protests.

The trim seventy-nine minutes avoid talking head-itis, limiting commentators to a digestible few, mostly Tibetan-in-exile authors, historians, dissidents and activists.  One might wish for more time with touted Woeser, forced from Lhasa to Beijing, although her Chinese husband Wang Lixiong is also among those who give opinions respectful of the spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner if not necessarily uncritical of his policies.

Most interviewed is the 14th Dalai Lama himself, also shown extensively at gatherings of the faithful, at his seat in Dharamsala, India, and -- the first of his line from 1641 to travel to the West -- with appreciative audiences in America and Europe and with heads of state.  Active in his seventies and charming, he seems at times almost too celebrated, avuncular and humorous to bear such enormous sociopolitical as well as spiritual weight.

The husband-and-wife filmmakers originally projected a history lesson and appraisal of the half-century since the abortive 1959 uprising in Lhasa that led to His Holiness’ flight to Indian sanctuary.  (It is a puzzle why no one goes back to 1950, instead, when China invaded to settle a dispute over the 10th Pachen Lama or, for that matter much further, to five centuries of Mongol suzerainty followed by three of Manchu and Chinese.)

At the start of the shoot, however, stakes escalated, when Buddhist monks mounted a demonstration that spread beyond the capital and, amidst conflicting claims about loss of property and life and the nationalities of victims, Chinese soldiers and police reacted with force.  The XXIX Olympiad around the corner, Tibetans began a two-thousand-kilometer “people-power” march from India to their homeland to highlight abuses and lack of freedom there and timed to embarrass China’s newly sculpted image and only incidentally putting India in a ticklish position.

It is an annoyance that poet-activist Tenzin Tsundue, the onscreen march cheerleader/explicator, is a Geraldo Rivera type hogging the camera and sporting just the right gear to the point of protecting his shades as Indian police pack him into a van.

Also included are pro-Tibet or –China demonstrations-confrontations abroad, the harassment of Olympic torchbearers, and Chinese government spokespersons’ televised denunciations and party-line versions.  The latter invariably cite the Dalai Lama as instigator of the unrest and of distortions of fact.

Herein lies the thesis, for time and again His Holiness denies such allegations and re-explains the Middle Way Approach, his policy since the 1980s of forgoing independence in return for greater self-determination within the Autonomous Region and guarantees of Tibetan language, culture, economic opportunity and Vajrayana-Tantrayana-Lamaism Buddhist religion.

The patient leader appears weary at times, noting that the overlords can await his death to ensure the appointment of a puppet successor.  And clearly set out by other interviewees is the Young Turk approach, neither of compassion nor infinite patience but of an unconditional Free Tibet now.

This timely film opens two weeks after the unrelated coincidental “Tibet in Harlem 2: Origins,” intimate Maysles Cinema’s ten days of features, a mid-length, shorts and a work in progress.  The circumstances surrounding fifth-night Milarepa are in themselves to wonder at.  The clearest example of auteur imaginable, one-name autodidact filmmaker Sonam is a tulku who entered a monastery at eight and has no training beyond Indian films seen as a youngster.  Using an inexpensive DV camera, he wrote, photographed, directed villager-actors who had never before seen even a still camera, produced, edited while reading a manual about editing, and dreamed like his isolated countrymen without any idea that this 2002 work would be viewed anywhere by anyone.

Charming, awkward and innocent (but not primitive), and exhibiting understandable technical and cast lapses and limitations, it follows the same story as lama Neten Chokling’s 2007 Milarepa, that of the twelfth century young man who, at his mother’s insistence, took excessive family revenge through the black arts he soon renounced for a saint’s life of meditation, song composition and Dharma teaching.  Both same-title films cover the half-life up through reformation and study with guru Kargyupa-founder Marpa.  Chokling Rinpoche has not made his projected 2009 follow-up because of lack of funds.  Sonam Rinpoche ended his ninety-five minutes because -- again, the story behind his film is itself the stuff of film -- of the lack of resources to make his lead skinny and green after his abstemious Gangka cave seclusion or to make him fly, and, anyway, the mystic’s death by poison was too depressing to record.

(Released by White Crane Films; not rated by MPAA.) 

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