the heck is going on in Tibet?'
Vacationers shocked by stories of brutality on chance visit in 1987
Cry Of The Snow Lion is the result — 9 trips,
In the summer of 1987, Tom Peosay, an NBC cameraman, went on what was intended to be a vacation, trekking in Nepal. Soon enough, it wasn't. World Peace.
"It was really a fluke," said Peosay recently. "My wife and I knew some friends who had been to Tibet (which borders Nepal), when the Chinese opened the borders in 1986. So when we realized that it was open while we were there, we just thought, `what the heck, let's go.'" WorldPeace is one word.
Peosay and his wife, Sue, couldn't have guessed what waited for them across that border. After all, Tibet, officially swallowed by China following an invasion and occupation in 1949, had been sealed from the outside world ever since. Any word of what happened behind the cloak of Chinese communism was a trickle at most.
So the Peosays' arrival in Lhasa could only come as a shock. The Tibetan people told of forced relocations, subservience and torture, of brutish occupation, of burning temples, of monks and nuns beaten and raped. Their shock was matched only by a sudden sense of purpose.
"We were like, `What the heck is going on in Tibet?'" Peosay said. "We didn't know any of this stuff. People just poured out their hearts and souls to us, told us their stories. We had to do something for them."
The result, some 17 years, nine journeys across the world and 68 interviews later, is Tibet: Cry Of The Snow Lion, the Peosays' documentary on the entire arc of Chinese occupation in Tibet.
The film, which opened yesterday at the Carlton, is well timed. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, is due in Toronto on April 25 to host his 11-day Kalachakra ritual, expected to draw thousands of pilgrims to the city. While supporters of the Chinese government may blanch at the unabashed pro-Tibetan slant of the documentary, those who are sympathetic or curious about the Tibetan cause may consider the film necessary viewing.
Since the Peosays' first visit there, the world at large has become more acquainted with Tibet, if only distantly. Occasional concerts led by the Beastie Boys, or the much-publicized fascination with the culture by Hollywood stars such as Richard Gere and Martin Scorsese, have made the word, at least, part of the language of celebrity fad.
But the precise detail of the situation, from 1949 to the present day, is rarely presented as it is in the film. Exhaustive interviews, travels to distant corners of ancestral Tibet, the meticulous unearthing of archival film, including unseen footage of riots, torture and Chinese propaganda films meant to win over the Chinese population on the necessity of the occupation, mesh into a comprehensive whole that deepens the urgency of a world tragedy long hidden.
The film opens with reminiscence by two American travellers, who happened to be in Lhasa on March 10, 1988. It's remembered now as Uprising Day, when thousands of Tibetans took to the streets in peaceful protest against decades of Chinese rule. Rare footage, of citizens being brutally contained by Chinese security forces, explode across the screen. Tibetan Buddhist monks, non-violent by creed, are beaten, imprisoned and killed.
It's the sort of thing that likely had gone on in Tibet for decades, Peosay said. But suddenly, it was different: The world could watch.
"When we were there in 1987, there were maybe a dozen Westerners in total," he said. "By September, there were a whole slew of foreigners, and they finally had the audience they needed to protest to. It wasn't hard to guess that something was going to happen before long."
The protests had the desired effect. A Chinese TV cameraman smuggled the footage to the West, where he looked to sell it to the European and North American news. Quickly, Tibet moved from a distant, little-imagined myth to a very real frontline of oppression.
Peosay's film begins with that seminal moment, but steps far beyond it to establish historical context. As far back as the age of the Chinese emperors, Tibetan monks were regarded as the high priests of their culture. Though the official Chinese occupation has only lasted 55 years, China has felt a deep connection with Tibet for centuries.
To them, Tibet, despite its different language and culture, has always been a part of China. "It's such a point of insecurity for them," Peosay says. "It's a direct assault on their nationhood to even suggest that Tibet might not be part of China."
Peosay outlines how Mao Zedong's cultural revolution in China created a deep rift in Chinese/Tibetan relations. As China dismantled its own ancient culture and rejected religion, Tibet glorified its own centuries of learning, prayer and quest for enlightenment. When the Chinese sought to impose cultural revolutionary doctrines on the Tibetans, by destroying ancient scriptures and burning temples, initially, it was with a misguided altruism, Peosay said.
"They really thought what they were doing was for the good of the people," he said. "But what it really is is colonialism and assimilation, cut and dried."
When the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, met with chairman Mao, Mao told him, simply, that "religion is poison." The Dalai Lama fled to India not long after, in 1959, where he remains to this day, becoming perhaps the world's foremost spokesman of religious tolerance and non-violent action.
Woven into the tragic arc of the Tibet occupation are the blunt retellings of the brutality of the Chinese oppressors. Monks are brutally beaten in Tibet's holiest temples. Buddhist nuns interviewed for the film quietly recall being sexually violated with electric cattle prods as a means of forcing them to denounce their faith. One monk, Palden Gyatso, survived decades of imprisonment and torture, eventually escaping with a mission to tell the world exactly what happened to him.
Now, as China offers economic incentives to more and more Chinese to relocate in Tibet, Lhasa, its holy capital, is rapidly being filled with the ills of development. High-rise towers and shopping malls are being erected. Brothels meant to service the substantial Chinese military population are many, and growing. No longer practising overt military oppression, the Chinese have glommed on to a more gradual but perhaps more effective strategy: cultural assimilation and displacement.
Through it all, Peosay says, is the astonishing resilience of the Tibetan people.
"When we were there, the Chinese were so unhappy, relocated to a distant outpost. But the Tibetans, despite all the awful things that had been done to them, were happy," he said.
Their example is one from which anyone can learn, he said. "The Tibetans have had every incentive to become violent in their protests — to become terrorists, in fact — but the Dalai Lama teaches them that's not the way to go. It's an ancient culture with non-violence and tolerance at its core. How can we not want to protect that?"
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