The first thing you'll wonder about Dancing in Amdo, local filmmaker Carl Cimini's documentary about Tibet under Chinese rule, is, "How'd he score an interview with the Dalai Lama?"
Answer: patience. And the effort highlighted the nuances and paradoxes of a political situation that's much more complicated than people imagine.
Dancing in Amdo, which premieres locally with four screenings at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Sept. 5-7, is rooted in Cimini's long interest in Tibetan Buddhism. In 1999, when the Dalai Lama visited Pittsburgh, Cimini volunteered to document the event on video. But while the visit sparked discussion of Chinese repression, says Cimini, "The question I wanted to know about was, 'What was China's position?'"
He waited more than a year for the Chinese Embassy, in Washington, D.C., to respond to his request to visit China. Finally, in 2001, he and a small video crew traveled there to interview government officials, and then to Tibet itself. In 2003, they flew to India to hear from the Tibetan government in exile -- headed, of course, by the 14th Dalai Lama.
Setting up the meeting with the Dalai Lama took time. His Holiness' staff permitted just 10 questions, and in screening them was no less rigorous than Chinese bureaucrats. Oh, and it wouldn't be an "interview."
"You can't interview a deity," says Cimini. "He's the god-king of the Tibetan people."
The audience -- in the city of Dharamsala, in the foothills of the Himalayas -- went well, but the Dalai Lama's views are just one facet of Dancing in Amdo, a 106-minute documentary whose historical ground zero is his 1959 exile. Some 60,000 Tibetans followed him out of the land that's now called the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Repression peaked during Mao's Cultural Revolution, which was set on destroying traditional culture. A softer line followed. But Dancing in Amdo, featuring rare archival U.S. government footage of 1940s Tibet, implicitly cautions against seeing things in black and white. China today refurbishes Buddhist monasteries, for instance, but that doesn't mean culture is being preserved, exactly: Elements like the colorful Tibetan opera seem more alive among the exiles in India whom Cimini meets.
And yet while repression continues -- a March 2008 protest over jailed monks spurred a police crackdown, for instance -- that, too, is somewhat a matter of perspective. Exhibit A: Cimini interviews a Tibetan exile nostalgic for his family's vast land holdings -- and its serfs. Exhibit B: A Tibetan man, now a government official, says that had the Chinese not abolished serfdom, he might still be a slave in his once-feudal homeland.
There are also interviews with the owner of a state-subsidized carpet factory, and with an ordinary Tibetan family. (Could such folks speak freely to a foreign film crew? "I didn't feel that those people were scripted," says Cimini. "I don't think there was any sort of threat hanging over them. But you don't know.")
Even the Dalai Lama himself notes ironies. The Tibetan flag is forbidden in Tibet, but "Some Chinese shops are also selling my picture," he says, chuckling.
The film was completed with help from funders including the Pittsburgh Foundation and Artists and Cities. Other highlights include Cold War propaganda starring John Wayne and Edward R. Murrow, and a Disney-style cartoon excoriating totalitarianism. There's also extensive commentary by Tibet scholar Melvyn Goldstein, of Case Western Reserve University, in Ohio.
"We thought it was pretty balanced and fair," says Brandon Wallace, community programs director of the nonprofit World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, which is co-sponsoring screenings of Dancing in Amdo. The nonpartisan group promotes dialogue on international affairs. "I think Carl did about as good a job as anybody could with this issue."
Cimini, meanwhile, observes that it's impossible to think about Tibet without pondering China's growing influence worldwide -- an influence wielded with a decidedly non-Western mindset. To Chinese officials, "Freedom isn't important," says Cimini. "Peace is important, function is important."
"The Tibetan issue is the very tip of a larger issue, which is 'How is China going to take care of the rest of us?'" adds Cimini. "Everyone in America knows that 'communism is bad.' But China is quick to point out that this is Chinese communism. ... We're going to have to understand it at the very least."
Fri., Sept. 5-Sun., Sept. 7. Melwood Screening Room, 477 Melwood Ave., N. Oakland. $7 ($6 seniors/students; $3 Pitt and Point Park students). 412-682-4111
- One of the crowd: an exiled Tibetan monk in India in Dancing in Amdo.