Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s The Sun Behind the Clouds is the latest offering in a long line of documentaries about Tibet. The distinctiveness of this edition derives from its willingness to portray the internal debates of the Tibetan movement and in the movie’s attempts to give voice to Tibetans living in Tibet. These features moved the film from a typical propaganda piece about the oppression faced under the brutal grip of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to a serious examination of resistance strategies in Tibet and in its influential Diaspora. The crowd at the Film Forum in the West Village of New York City reflected this difference. The vast majority appeared to be of Tibetan ancestry, which is a marked break from the typical middle-class liberal crowd for all issues Tibet.
The film wrestles with the increasingly divergent political positions offered by the various sections of the Tibetan movement. Inside Tibet, the mass uprisings against the PRC in 2008 suggest that the population continues to push forward with demands for independence. This sentiment is echoed in the large Tibetan exile community housed primarily in Dharamshala, India. However, the official leadership in exile, headed by the Dalai Lama, continues to pursue a “middle-path” strategy that rejects claims for independence and seeks only cultural autonomy within the national boundaries of the PRC.
Deep cultural and political problems ensue because of the positioning of the Dalai Lama in the Tibetan movement. Is he Tibet’s political leader or symbol of cultural unity? A God on earth or political tutor seeking to impart Western lessons of democracy to his people? For young Tibetans in exile feeding off the energy of the movement in Tibet, this political tension leads them to organize a mass march to begin a civil disobedience campaign at the border of India and China. They have clearly internalized the Dalai Lama’s lessons about non-violence, but refuse to accept his strategy that relies almost entirely on high-level negotiations with the PRC. The march to the border forms the vital force of a film dominated by one-on-one interviews.
Extended screen time is allocated to interviews with the Dalai Lama. However, this is a gently critical treatment. The Dalai Lama is shown as struggling with his desire to cultivate democratic instincts within the population while also steering the movement in a moderate direction. Simultaneously, the leader has to struggle against Chinese officials who consistently and publicly misrepresent his position as pro-independence and, thereby, separatist. These divergent pressures lead Dalai Lama to speak against the march to the border in public. Simultaneously, its continuance is un-narrated evidence of an emerging independent political culture among the exiles.
Yet all sides of the Tibetan community recognize the importance of the Dalai Lama as a cultural figure. The Chinese government is presented as being intent on defaming the influential monk as a retrograde phenomenon of the Diaspora. He, they claim, has lost all influence inside of Tibet. In one of the more compelling scenes of the movie, a Tibetan filmmaker smuggles himself into the country to test these claims by documenting popular feelings about the Dalai Lama. What he finds defeats the official Chinese line. When he plays a video of the monk, all of the people of the house fall on their knees in prayer. An older man sobs as he describes his sincere desire to see the Dalai Lama return to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The films were smuggled out of the country, the filmmaker was arrested.
Tibetan intellectuals in the film hold a variety of positions vis-à-vis the Dalai Lama and the demand for national independence. The more edgy of the bunch seek affinity with the militant sections of the movement in Tibet. The Dalai Lama is presented as a political retardant on this process. For instance, his absence or even his blessing of the march to the border marks the separation of the official leadership from an emerging movement. Yet many would also agree with the cultural positioning of the Dalai Lama made by the dissident Tibetan poet Woeser. She presents him as a key point of cultural unity for all Tibetans and, therefore, critical to disrupting the Chinese strategy of social dislocation and cultural annihilation. The Dalai Lama remains the key cultural figure over which internal and exiled dissidents are bridged.
The Sun Behind the Clouds accomplishes the task of bringing the fascinating political world of Tibetan politics to life. By focusing on Tibetan actors, the film manages to avoid the now staid moralizing of the mainstream, predominantly American and European, Free Tibet movement. Consequently, the film is not for the entirely uninitiated. If you are thinking of viewing this movie, and are not well versed in the Tibet-China conflict, you would do well to examine a more rudimentary film first. Do not let this stop you though, because The Sun Behind the Clouds offer viewpoints that are entirely absent from previous treatments.
The Sun Behind the Clouds runs at the Film Forum until April 13th.