Judge Joel Pearce recommends this documentary for people whose knowledge of Tibet begins and ends with the Dalai Lama and the Lhasa Apso.
Behind the secrets…Beyond your imagination…An unforgettable epic of courage and compassion.
Like many people, I know embarrassingly little about Tibet. From films I have a picture of mountains and monasteries, but no real sense of its culture or history. This documentary gives a concise and passionate overview of the history of Tibet, focusing on the suffering of its people in the past half century at the hands of Communist China. It pulls no punches in this portrayal, and the result is disturbing and heartbreaking.
The film begins with images from Tibetan riots in the late '80s, in which many monks and other activists were killed by Chinese soldiers. Some American tourists managed to capture images and film footage of the incident, and they relay the horrors that they have witnessed in interviews. The story of Tibet is then told, over a thousand years of unbroken culture in the well-protected mountains. It was not until the past hundred years that Tibet started to change, with the colonization of first Britain and then China. While the threat of the British never became a reality (one of the men interviewed was among the only westerners in Tibet at the time of the Communist arrival), the invasion of Chinese troops and culture has had a profound impact on this unique nation.
The story of this invasion is told through translated interviews, graphic film footage and stills. Through the leadership of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan people had no chance—or desire—to fight the Chinese people, and to a great extent do not feel hatred towards them, even after over fifty years of rape and murder. The deeply religious culture of the Tibetan people has, at least to a point, held strong. What began as a hostile takeover, however, has now turned into a more subtle and much more powerful cultural genocide, as Chinese immigrants have taken jobs from the Tibetans and installed brothels, discos and television in the holy city of Lhasa. The notion of progress is called into question, for although it seems like a good idea for Tibet to modernize for the sake of its poor population, many important parts of its culture have become watered-down and could easily wind up completely destroyed.
While Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion is a powerful portrayal of the situation in Tibet, it's impossible to completely forget where it came from. This comes from an American perspective, and the narrators and producers do not have the same hesitation to speak with hatred about the Chinese that the people interviewed show. I was struck by the close similarities between the Tibetan situation and the U.S.'s Western expansion, especially towards the end of the film. The people of Tibet have been pushed out by the arriving Chinese immigrants, and new technology and a railroad through the mountains could completely demolish the native culture. I'm not sure, though, whether the parallels of these situations have been played up to appeal to a politically correct American audience. Some of the stereotypes of the monks seem evident, despite the efforts of the producers to display the people in a clear light. Even with these inconsistencies, the plight of Tibet is important and horrible enough that this film makes a clear and important statement.
The disc is generally solid as well. The 1.33:1 image is not that impressive, but New Yorker has done the best it could with the quality of the footage. It is never a great visual experience, but that's hardly the purpose in this case. The sound transfer is better, surprisingly arriving in a 5.1 Dolby track that has clear voices, immersive music, and a great deal of clarity.
The disc is also well stocked with extras. There is some bonus footage, ranging from scenes of day-to-day life in central Tibet to the religious festivals they hold each year. This footage also has a surprisingly rich and immersive 5.1 track. There are also two extended interviews, featuring the current Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman. These are good interviews, fleshing out some of the content of the film. The extras close off with a music video featuring images of Tibetan culture. These extras nearly equal the length of the film. I appreciate that the producers of Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion have included this footage, because I am often curious after watching documentaries what the unedited footage and interviews would have looked like.
If you, like me, know little about Tibet and are curious about the situation there, this is a film well worth tracking down. It feels a bit too much like a Western product, but it is a Western product with a Western audience in mind. But that doesn't weaken the suffering that the Tibetan people have faced in the past 60 years, which is a story that needs to be told and acted upon.
Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion is not guilty.
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