The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2010

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APR 2010 Issue

Tibet’s Continuing David and Goliath Story: Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin with Williams Cole

Tibetan directing partners Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin have produced a catalogue of films spanning more than two decades that have cemented them as not only award-winning filmmakers but as prominent voices in the Tibetan exile community and beyond. Their newest film, The Sun Behind the Clouds, is a documentary that opens at the Film Forum on March 31st after successful festival runs across the world (most recently they received the Vaclav Havel Award at the One World Film Festival in Prague).

The Dalai Lama in Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin's <i>The Sun Behind The Clouds.</i> © White Crane Films.
The Dalai Lama in Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin's The Sun Behind The Clouds. © White Crane Films.

As most of Sonam and Sarin’s films do, The Sun Behind the Clouds addresses important issues of Tibetan exile, culture, and independence. But, given the importance of the March 2008 Tibetan uprising and its aftermath, The Sun Behind the Clouds is all the more powerful and controversial because it portrays a Tibetan community that is torn between its allegiance to the holy Dalai Lama and his non-violent “Middle Way” approach toward China and one that is increasingly militant in its insistence of Tibetan independence by any means necessary. In fact, at the Palm Springs International Film Festival the China Film Group pulled the Chinese feature City of Life and Death in protest of the festival’s exhibition of this film, a testament to how sensitive the issue of Tibet is for a China that is only growing in power. I corresponded with Tenzing and Ritu via email as they prepared for the London debut of the film. —W. Cole

Williams Cole (Rail): How significant was the March 2008 uprising for the Tibetan exile community?

Tenzing & Ritu: The uprising of 2008 was a historic watershed for exiled Tibetans. The scale of the uprising, which spread far beyond the capital Lhasa to remote Tibetan areas outside the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, showed us the depth of unhappiness and frustration that Tibetans in Tibet continued to feel about Chinese rule. For the first time since the fall of Tibet in 1959, Tibetans from the entire plateau were united in their calls for the return of the Dalai Lama and for Tibetan independence. This was a clear and loud rejection of everything the Chinese had been telling their own people and the outside world and it, at least for a brief period, revitalized the movement in exile. The protests were also significant in that they politicized a whole new generation of Tibetans in Tibet, including students studying in China, and therefore ensured that our struggle would continue into the future.

Rail: Describe how that activism led up to the 2008 Olympics and how that invigorated Tibetans inside and outside Tibet.

Tenzing & Ritu: The timing of the first protest by the monks in Lhasa on March 10th, 2008 was extremely significant. This was the 49th anniversary of the failed Lhasa Uprising which took place in 1959 and which Tibetans generally commemorate as the day when China finally took control of Tibet. The monks also knew that with the Beijing Olympics coming up, the international spotlight would be on China. But even they could not have imagined the snowballing effect their action would have. As the protests spread, Tibetans around the world and their supporters came out in full force to show their solidarity. The disruption of the Olympic Torch Relay in London and Paris, which led to the farcical decoy tactics in San Francisco [i.e. pro-Chinese protests] to avoid a similar embarrassment, were deeply humiliating to China. Students for a Free Tibet mounted a spectacular action at the Golden Gate Bridge where activists scaled the cables and unfurled Free Tibet banners high up on the bridge. As portrayed in the film, in India, a group of Tibetan exiles set out on a march on their homeland, which would end four months later close to the Indo-Tibet border when Indian police finally stopped them. For a short moment, there was an exhilarating feeling of hope and optimism, and then it all came crashing down.

Rail: Why did it come crashing down and what is the feeling now in the exile community?

Tenzing & Ritu: The earthquake in Szechwan in May 2008 deflected international attention from Tibet. Suddenly, hostility towards China was replaced with sympathy. China agreed to meet with the Dalai Lama’s representatives, which mollified Western leaders like Bush and Sarkozy, who had made noises about not attending the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. By the time the Olympics began, Tibet was forgotten and a huge crackdown was taking place out of sight of the international media. Two months after the Olympics ended, China invited the Dalai Lama’s representatives once again, but this time there was no pretense about their rejection of the Dalai Lama’s compromise offer. The year that had started with hope ended in despair. Two years later, we are still stuck in a deadlock with no sign of movement. The feeling among most Tibetans is one of confusion and frustration with no sign of any new direction coming from our leadership.

Rail: As you portray in the film, the Dalai Lama has advocated a “Middle Way” approach since the 1980s—describe what that is and how China has addressed this over the last decades.

Tenzing & Ritu: The Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach is a practical one that is aimed at saving Tibet’s culture and religion. In return for giving up the demand for independence, he has asked for genuine autonomy for all Tibetans under one administrative authority, as per the Chinese constitution’s policy on minorities. The Chinese have always characterized the Dalai Lama’s offer as being an attempt to gain “disguised independence”. One reason China is deeply opposed to this plan is because currently nearly two-thirds of traditionally Tibetan areas are divided among the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Szechwan, Gansu and Yunnan. Only the area that was Central Tibet constitutes what is known as the Tibet Autonomous Region. China cannot accept an enlarged Tibetan entity because it fears that such as entity would be the stepping-stone for greater demands in the future. China’s standard response to the Dalai Lama has been to say that he does not have the authority to speak on behalf of the Tibetan people.

Rail: So does that characterize the official Chinese policy toward Tibet?

Tenzing & Ritu: The official Chinese policy towards Tibet is to state that the Tibet of the past was a hellish and barbaric slave society headed by the Dalai Lama and that it was only after they liberated the country in 1959 that it embarked on the road to civilization and development. In the past two decades, China has invested vast sums of money to develop the region, but the benefits of this policy has had little effect in improving the lives of ordinary Tibetans. Instead, it has catalyzed a massive migration of Chinese settlers into Tibet, especially after the completion of the Tibet railroad in 2006, and demographically altered the make-up of most urban areas, so that today, Tibetans are in a minority in cities like the capital of Tibet, Lhasa. It has also set out to exploit Tibet’s vast mineral resources, displaced nomads and farmers, and tightened its policy on the practice of Buddhism. In Tibet, it is a crime to possess the Dalai Lama’s pictures, and regular patriotic education campaigns reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution force Tibetans to denounce their spiritual leader. Yet, China continues to maintain that Tibetans are happy and prospering under its rule.

Rail: Are there Chinese progressives that are vocal on this issue? Is there a part of Chinese society that you are aware of that would advocate for independence?

Tenzing & Ritu: There is a growing minority of Chinese intellectuals who are questioning the official version of the Tibet situation. And there are Chinese dissidents living in exile who support the idea of Tibetan independence. But within China, this would be seen as sedition. Tibet is a hugely sensitive subject in China. It touches upon deep-rooted issues of national pride and territorial integrity, and it will take a long time before the Chinese people open up to the question of Tibetan independence.

Rail: If the Dalai Lama once again advocated for a free and independent Tibet, what do you think the effect would be?

Tenzing & Ritu: It would galvanize the Tibet movement. There is not a single Tibetan who does not harbor the desire for independence. And as long as the Dalai Lama maintains his non-violent approach—which he certainly would—then it would not negatively impact his image as an international symbol of peace and non-violence. Certainly, if he were to modify this approach, the Chinese would be forced to crack down harder in Tibet but this, in turn, would demonstrate clearly to the world the colonial nature of its rule in Tibet, and make it more difficult for other nations to ignore this.

Rail: How could world opinion change China’s policies toward Tibet? What would it take?

Tenzing & Ritu: A concerted grass-roots movement in support of the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination could have a cumulative effect on Western governments to take a stand on Tibet. At the moment, the pretense of a dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama’s envoys works as a convenient cover for the West to pretend that some progress is being made. In fact, the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” approach suits Western governments because it lets them off the hook in terms of having to take a tough stand against China. But if these governments were forced by public opinion to rethink their policy of appeasement towards China, they would have no choice but to get serious about Tibet.

Rail: What do you want U.S. audiences to come away with from this movie?

Tenzing & Ritu: Although Tibet is a popular cause in the U.S., very few people seem aware of the complexities of Tibet as an issue. As the Tibet movement grinds to a halt in the face of China’s continuing rejection of the Dalai Lama’s compromise proposal, we felt it was important to re-examine the situation in a way that would open it up to debate and discussion both within the Tibetan community and the larger world out there. We hope to both inform an American audience about how serious and complex the Tibet issue is and to provoke them into reflecting on the situation in a more meaningful way.

Rail: As part of the Tibetan exile community what was the hardest part for you of making this film?

Tenzing & Ritu: As Tibetans, the hardest part of making this film was to present opinions that contradict the Dalai Lama’s policies. Within the Tibetan community, the Dalai Lama is considered to be like a Buddha, and therefore it is very difficult for Tibetans to disagree with him; the societal pressure is very great. However, thanks to the Dalai Lama’s own efforts to impose democratic principles among the exiled Tibetan community, this is slowly beginning to change and more Tibetans are prepared to come out in opposition to his policies. However, this still remains one of the most challenging things for a Tibetan.

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The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2010

All Issues