The snow lion was a mythic creature said to protect the people of Tibet, and as such, had a place of honor on that region's flag. Today, under Chinese rule, the Tibetan flag has been outlawed -- and with it went the noble beast's oversight, leaving Tibet a collection of displaced and oppressed people, flailing to preserve not just their land but their very identity. This struggle is the focus of Tom Peosay's documentary Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion, a primer on Sino-Tibetan relations that explicitly sides with the Tibetan people and unabashedly asks you to care. Which you will undoubtedly do -- or more likely, already do, since this film will certainly attract those familiar with this high-profile cause.
The "rooftop of the world," Tibet is a remote country isolated by deserts and the world's tallest mountains. It harbored an indigenous people who pursued their theocratic Buddhist lifestyle for centuries, largely free from outside intervention until 1949, when the neighboring Chinese "liberated" Tibet with armed forces. The Chinese asserted that Tibet had always been their land, and now its location and natural resources were strategically important. The period of the Chinese Cultural Revolution proved particularly ruinous to Tibet's Buddhist traditions as the Chinese engaged in the destruction of property (much of it religious) and cracked down on dissent. Many Tibetans -- including the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama -- fled their homeland and established communities in India and Nepal.
To tell Tibet's story, Peosay uses archival footage (including Chinese propaganda films) and footage from the nine trips he and his wife Sue Peosay (who co-wrote the film with Victoria Mudd) made to the country over the past decade. Amidst those scenes of gorgeous vistas and religious rituals, he inserts talking-head interviews with politicians, academics, Tibetan monks and nuns now in exile who had been imprisoned and tortured, a spokesman for the People's Republic of China, as well as Tibet's leader-in-exile and primary spokesman for the nonviolent solution, the Dalai Lama. Fortunately there are no Hollywood stars enlightening us with their informed opinions (Martin Sheen narrates; Ed Harris, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins simply lend their energies to voiceover translations).
While Peosay helpfully always identifies interviewees, he's much sloppier with visual footage. He casually cuts from one unidentified place to another, so that while the narration may be decrying religious persecution in Tibet, we are watching the painstaking creation of a sand mandala obviously someplace else (the Dalai Lama is in attendance). Some interviewees appear once to utter a single useful sentence -- like the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who decries the West's endorsement of genocide in Tibet -- yet the film never places her concerns in any specific political or historical context.
The Chinese are a large and easy target, but I wish the film delved deeper into some of the complicity of the freedom-loving West. The CIA supported Tibetan exiles in a guerilla struggle against the Chinese ... until we opened up China as a market in the 1970s. Peosay interviews a representative of the AFL-CIO, who suggests that when huge U.S. companies like Wal-Mart obtain most of their goods from China, bargain-hunting Americans are in effect supporting China's obliteration of Tibet, among other pursuits. This is provocative, and emblematic of how the average well-meaning person can't hope to evade complex global trade issues -- but then his statement just hangs there.
And after mildly suggesting that the world doesn't know enough about Tibet's troubles to care (and citing especially the United States, the standard-bearer for freedom and democracy), the first American response we see (besides the talking heads) is a bunch of kids thrashing their carefully cultivated Third World hairdos about in support while the Foo Fighters create feedback at a Free Tibet concert. Is it simply entertainment? This year's trend? What does it really mean -- or matter -- to put a "Free Tibet" bumper sticker on your car?
Sadly, Tibet is a culture being systematically exterminated. As Peosay intercuts images of happy natives with mean-faced Chinese soldiers and shots of its capital, Lhasa, as a corrupted city, please note that wireless communication and Pabst Blue Ribbon ads suggest as much Western perversion as Eastern. The last part of the film details what may be the greatest and most irreversible threat: large Chinese migration to Tibet. It's destruction by colonization, an enforced conversion of a "backward" people to the benefits of modern life as instructed by the conqueror nation that gobbles up resources and snuggles into its new geo-politically strategic position -- coincidentally the sort of behavior that the United States and Western Europe happily have indulged in for centuries.
Tibet is certainly interesting in a straightforward National Geographic manner, and Tibet's cause is worthy, but I wish the filmmakers had dared to be more provocative rather than just presenting a propaganda piece dressed up as a documentary. Since as a nation we are currently in a liberating-other-peoples mood, hopefully this film will prove inspiring to new audiences -- or at least help viewers understand the Free Tibet movement as something more than Richard Gere's chosen mantle of celebrity responsibility.