Arts & Events

Film Review:The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom

By Topden Tsering
Thursday June 17, 2010 - 05:05:00 PM

Very rarely has it happened that the shooting for a documentary has begun and its subject has taken on a story of its own, both expanding and deepening its sense of urgency and poignancy, complexity and hope, more than would have been possible if it were just a hindsight appraisal. The documentary “The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom,” opening in the Bay Area on June 18, benefits from that singular fortuity. The involvement here is similar to witnessing childbirth under the most adversarial conditions, the threshold equally open to life and death. 

In March 2008, over a hundred Tibetans set out on a Return March to Tibet from Dharamsala in northern India, the Tibetan world’s exile capital and the headquarters of the Dalai Lama. The campaign, just months ahead of the Beijing Olympics and just a year short of five decades of Chinese occupation, marked the culmination of exiled Tibetans’ frustration over China’s intransigence to the Tibetan leader’s “Middle Way” approach. Repeatedly, Beijing had thwarted the Buddhist leader’s reconciliatory policy, envisioning cultural autonomy for Tibet, including provinces incorporated into the Chinese mainland, as a disguised bid for independence. The boldest gesture yet, the march which the Nobel Peace Laureate opposed, was fraught with danger. A crackdown from the Indian police was likely; and should the march make its way into Tibet, a lethal confrontation with Chinese soldiers was imminent. 

Simultaneously, an independence protest broke out in Lhasa, which spread to far flung areas of Amdo and Kham. Chinese paramilitary troops swiftly brought the country under lockdown and cut off all media access. But the revolt was far from subdued. The roof of the world was a stage to the biggest turbulence since the uprising of 1959, which China had violently put down, effectively sealing its military occupation of Tibet. 

The documentary, by the husband-wife team of Tenzin Sonam and Ritu Sarin, expertly traces the parallel movements. The footages of the exile march are as breathtaking as the undercover ones of the Tibet unrest are harrowing. On both sides of the Himalayas, the eye-grabbing yellow, red and blue Tibetan flags dominate the frames. The banners that flutter over the exile procession, along winding paths, across bridges and over deep valleys, are of luxuriant printed fabrics. Inside the restive nation, their hand-drawn banned versions appear variously in monk protestors’ nervous clutches and on a pole outside a besieged police station, hoisted by a defiant horde of nomadic horsemen. 

While physically removed, the Dalai Lama finds himself at the center of the twin revolutions. Be it in debates among the displaced activists about why, like Gandhi, the Tibetan leader couldn’t himself front the march, or in the slogans of oppressed monk protestors in Tibet who, ambushing state-orchestrated media tours, express wish for his quick return, the Dalai Lama is interchangeable with the struggle he symbolizes. Depending on your perspective, he’s equally the means and the end. 

Unlike other documentaries on Tibet, which typically extract from the Buddhist leader stock quotes bordering on clichés, The Sun Behind the Clouds achieves deeper inquiry. The filmmakers relentlessly mine the intimate access allowed them, bringing into focus the inner conflicts of the Dalai Lama rarely before captured on film. Torn between his position as the defender of his people’s freedom and the global beacon of peaceful living, the Tibetan leader cuts an achingly solitary figure, alone in his indefatigable compassion, alienated in a sea of insurmountable odds. 

The film also examines the growing disenchantment among exiled Tibetans with the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” proposal. As voiced by a poet-leader in the march, his reincarnate lama companion, and a host of other intellectuals and activists, the Buddhist icon’s policy falls short of political realism as manifest in China’s continued brutalization of his people. To them, the Tibetan leader’s relinquishing his demand for independence some two decades ago was a costly blunder. 

A larger cross-section of his followers, on the other hand, still supports the Dalai Lama’s political vision. To them, their leader’s co-existence overtures with China, drawing upon Buddhist tenets of interdependence and moderation, carry the only hope for a solution to the protracted Tibet problem. His is a plan that cannot fail—it is only a matter of time before the Chinese leadership puts aside their foolishness and resolves the crisis, leaving the Tibetans, as the Dalai Lama hopes, to benefit from China’s unstoppable economic growth. 

A journalistic coup of sort is achieved in a rare interview with Tibet’s famous writer and poet, Woeser, whose writings on Tibet had led to her being ousted from her publishing job and, later, the country itself. Currently based in Beijing, her chronicles of events in Tibet, like the 2008 uprising and this year’s earthquake, have provided precious validation, besides putting her at further risk with Chinese authorities. In one of her most illuminating remarks, referring to Beijing’s constant accusation that the Tibetan leader lies about his independence agenda, the outspoken blogger says: “It could well be that they know he’s not lying, but that they just don’t want to talk to him.” 

This observation cuts through a tendency among exiled China believers to locate rational responses in Beijing’s Tibet recalcitrance, overlooking the regime’s inherently tyrannical stakes in the occupied country. A Tibetan writer recently lambasted a young student’s comment to a reporter that the Dalai Lama didn’t represent the lives of all the Tibetans. Discounting sound-bite contrivances possibility, he suggested (while calling her a “fantastic” activist) her statement provided ammunition to China’s attacks on the Tibetan leader. 

One aspect of the documentary’s effectiveness lies in lifting the curtain on the intellectual ambiguity and moral didacticism that pervade the Tibetan world, where the interchange of the Dalai Lama with the Tibetan freedom movement stops being an asset and starts becoming a liability. Toward that end, the film opens a debate the Tibetan world ought to engage in before it becomes too late. 

The film’s Tibetan-centric theme is beautifully offset by Gustavo Santolalla’s soulful Latin-inspired score. The Oscar winner music composer of such films as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Babel” brings to the Tibetan story the right notes of ominous and hope. 

One of the most penetrating and comprehensive documentaries on the Tibetan freedom movement, the film’s title comes from a line in a song composed and sung by Tibetan nun political prisoners; the “Sun” is a reference to the Dalai Lama and the “Clouds” to China’s occupation of Tibet. As rendered by one of the interviewees, herself a former political prisoner, the song celebrates the hope, as cherished by Tibetans across all divides, that soon China’s occupation of Tibet will end and the exiled Tibetan leader will return. 

BAY AREA OPENING JUNE 18, 2010, with Q&A with filmmakers (for details, check 

Opera Plaza, San Francisco 

Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley