‘Tibet’ traces the crumbling of a country and culture | AspenTimes.com
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‘Tibet’ traces the crumbling of a country and culture

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

At this moment in world history, it seems a given that the pivotal conflict that will affect the coming decades is being fought in the Muslim world, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion” doesn’t argue otherwise. But the documentary poses Tibet as another place where the values of the world community are being shaped. The issues at play in Tibet ” individual freedom, national autonomy, religion, imperialism ” are the same as those raised by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But in “Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion,” those issues are cast in relatively black-and-white tones. In the portrayal of the spiritual Tibetans versus the domineering Chinese, the film leaves no room for argument that Tibet would be better off as the exotic, isolated place it had been for centuries. And it is a convincing picture: Surely Tibet would be healthier under the leadership of the revered Dalai Lama, who heads a government-in-exile from Dharmsala, India, than under the Chinese rulers, beginning with Mao Tse-tung, who have occupied Tibet to the present.

The film, a 10-year project of director/photographer Tom Peosay, persuades us that Tibet is worth significant attention, and not only for its political status. The documentary, the product of Peosay’s nine trips to the region, focuses first on Tibet’s staggering geography and culture.

The Tibet plateau, it is pointed out by narrator Martin Sheen, is the largest geographical feature on Earth. The extremes of the terrain, depicted in stunning photography, are not limited to the Himalayas to the south. Tibet is likewise surrounded by impenetrable river gorges and desert, keeping the influence of the outside world at a minimum.

For the 1,200 years that Tibet was a Buddhist theocracy, it had been a splendid isolation. Guided by the tenets of Buddhism ” that enlightenment could be attained by training the mind, and that unhappiness was a correctable accident ” Tibet formed a society based on benevolent religion, led by compassionate spiritual figures. It was “one of the most spiritual cultures ever known,” according to one of dozens of talking heads, from American and Chinese politicians to religious scholars to the Dalai Lama himself, who offer commentary. At one point, some 10 percent of the population was enrolled in Tibet’s monastic universities; 80 percent of the budget went to those monasteries.

“Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion” does not quite pretend that the country was a paradise. There is brief mention of Tibet’s problems with poverty, and technological and economic backwardness. But the overall picture, reinforced by testimony of elderly Tibetans, is of a happy society.

The documentary changes tone as it traces the crumbling of Tibet’s isolation. Despite having its own language, currency and military, Tibet was seen by China as part of its empire. When Mao came to power in 1949, the first act of his People’s Republic of China was to invade Tibet. The Dalai Lama, hoping to preserve Tibet’s autonomy, met with Mao; his hopes were dashed when Mao offered the opinion that “religion is a poison.” The Dalai Lama escaped to India in 1959 as the Chinese invasion of East Tibet exploded into genocide. Mao’s 1960s Cultural Revolution brought the destruction of some 2,000 Tibetan monasteries and most of Tibet’s ancient texts and artifacts. “Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion” depicts it all with shockingly close-up imagery.

Coinciding with the rise of the Soviet Union, the Chinese occupation made Tibet a political object. Where once the United States backed Tibet ” to the extent of a C.I.A. program that trained Tibetan guerrillas at Leadville’s Camp Hale ” the United States switched allegiance in the ’60s, backing China as a counterbalance to Soviet power.

The documentary reveals a brutal sadness in modern Tibet. Despite the 300,000 Chinese troops, it is less a military invasion than a social one. China offers economic incentives to its citizens to relocate to Tibet; the country is now home to video parlors and a massive red-light district. Monasteries are overseen by the Chinese military; photographs of the Dalai Lama are outlawed. “Calling for independence is the No. 1 crime,” says one Tibet expert.

China sees its role differently, as modernizer and protector of Tibet. They have attempted to diminish the Dalai Lama. A Chinese government spokesman claims that the Dalai Lama’s pre-exile policies were “darker and crueler than the Negro slavery system in the U.S.” Despite that contention, the Dalai Lama has been given a position of prominence on the world stage, invited to address Congress and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Still, “Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion” ends on a down note. Seeing China emerge as an enormous new market, First World countries are loath to interfere with China’s affairs. In 1995, after the Dalai Lama identified a 6-year-old Tibetan as the reincarnation of the Panchan Lama, the second-most-revered spiritual leader, the boy disappeared within days. Buddhism expert Stephen Batchelor calls him the world’s youngest political prisoner.

“Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion” ends by making the case that the hands-off stance toward Tibet reflects the world’s values. The film, in effect, offers a challenge: Side with the economic interests that drool over China as a trading partner, or take a stance in preserving one of the world’s most significant cultures.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

“Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion,” shows at the Wheeler Opera House Sunday and Monday, Nov. 30-Dec. 1.


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