THERE is an extraordinary scene in When the Dragon
Swallowed the Sun (Cert. 15) in which the 18th descendant
of the Great Religious Kings of Tibet receives a prophecy from the
State Oracle. Dressed in ornate ceremonial robes and an enormous
fur-topped headress, as if encased in a giant bell, the medium of
the oracle dances, possessed, amid the undulating chanting of the
gathered monks. Finally, he squeaks his divinations, scribbled down
frantically by an attendant.
It's a fascinating insight into the ancient culture of Tibet,
the treasure that many of the film's subjects are desperately
trying to preserve, mostly from their exile in India. The threat is
not just external - thousands of Chinese people are arriving in
Tibet under the policy of population transfer - but internal: young
Tibetans express a desire to focus not on a decades-long struggle
for liberation but a successful professional career.
The film, seven years in the making, was clearly a labour of
love for director Dirk Simon. He has collected interviews from a
huge number of sources, including the Dalai Lama, and activists
from across the spectrum.
At the heart of his film is a tension between those still
committed to a free Tibet, independent of China, and those who have
accepted the Middle Way, the approached proposed by the Dalai Lama,
which calls for autonomy rather than independence. All Tibetans are
divided in two, one interviewee explains, between loyalty to their
spiritual leader, and their "right to freedom".
Perhaps the most passionate contributor is Lhasang Tsering, an
activist who joined the armed Tibetan resistance force. He speaks
of recruiting a force of "mosquitos" to attack China's industry,
cutting wires and causing blackouts: "The price of freedom is not
paid in gold and silver, but in flesh and blood," he insists,
desperation etched on his face.
What is striking is the contrast between the weariness of those
calling for the Middle Way, who point to China's strength, and the
passion of those who still believe in the original struggle. For
these more radical campaigners, the stories of their parents has
been a crucial influence. "I am ready to sacrifice my body any
time," says one young man. This is not empty rhetoric. In March,
26-year-old Jamphel Yeshi died after committing self-immolation in
A thread running through the film is the build-up to the Beijing
Olympics of 2008, including a campaign to prevent the torch from
passing through Tibet and a daring protest on the Golden Gate
Bridge. During clashes on the streets of San Francisco, operatic
music from Philip Glass reaches an almost deafening crescendo as
protesters confront pro-China opponents, faces within spitting
distance of one another.
Although participants in the film speak of the need to
understand China, there is little explanation of China's
perspective, beyond these clashes, in which Chinese immigrants
insist that Tibet is part of China. There is also an interview with
a Chinese dissident artist who describes how his countrymen are
"brainwashed", taught that the Red Army freed Tibetan slaves from a
regime under which human skin was used to make furniture.
The maker of the film is clearly enthralled by his
subject-matter. There are stunning shots of Tibet, clouds scudding
over rolling hills, the sun rising over dancers on hilltops, their
costumes silhouetted against the sky. But the thoroughness of his
investigation into the complexities of the situation precludes any
suggestion of his exoticising the mysterious East.
Towards the conclusion of the film, Jigme Yeshi of the Tibetan
Youth Congress seeks to revive the history of Tibet's warriors,
submerged, he suggests, in recent narratives that emphasise peace.
His speech is played over footage of young Tibetans competing in
the amateur Tibetan Olympics in India. It is a poignant
juxtaposition: the passion of a young freedom fighter pitted
against pictures of his peers wielding not arms but javelins, young
men and women born to an exiled people numbering just six million,
while over the border a dragon of 1.3 billion people roars.