What are we going to do about Tibet? It's a heartbreaking question that has no easy answers. Tom Peosay's meticulously prepared Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion is an excellent introduction to the genocidal horrors that have been committed by the Chinese government against the people of Tibet for 50 years. It's also a powerful primer on the geopolitical realities of the 21st century that make any relief for suffering Tibetans hard to imagine, at least in the short term. Only the superhuman compassion of the Dalai Lama himself shines a ray of light on this very dark situation.
The documentary is not a hysterical human rights diatribe (even though Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins are present in voiceovers). Peosay points out that Tibetan society was never Shangri-la. It was a highly stratified culture, with armies of peasants serving a fat aristocracy. What everyone shared, however, was a lifestyle built entirely around profound spiritualism. When the Chinese communists invaded to stake their claim to the massive Tibetan plateau in 1950 (Tibet had always considered itself independent of China but didn't have any particular international recognition of that fact), one of their claims was that they had arrived to redistribute land to the peasants, just as they had done in the rest of China. Unfortunately, the landowners were the clergy, and the Tibetan people wouldn't tolerate the abuse of the monks and lamas who served as their spiritual leaders. By 1959, a full crackdown was underway, and during the Cultural Revolution, more than 6,000 monasteries were destroyed. By the time of Mao's death in 1976, one in six Tibetans -- more than a million -- had died of starvation or met a violent end.
This awful story is told by a number of excellent talking heads including several Tibetan exiles, some of whom were imprisoned for decades, and Professor Robert Thurman (Uma's dad), who just so happens to be America's leading expert on Tibetan Buddhism. The film also offers plenty of snippets of the charismatic Dalai Lama, who tries hard to explain how his compassion, forgiveness, and belief in karma keeps him optimistic, even in the face of such pervasive evil.
Archival film clips are interwoven with scenes of Tibet today, overrun as it is with waves of Chinese immigrants who are creating a sort of Tibetan apartheid. As China remakes Lhasa into a mini-Beijing, the natives are impoverished and forced into shanty towns where they languish with no hope for the future. To his credit, Peosey interviews a couple of Chinese government officials who try to explain China's position on Tibet, which, in brief, is "We're helping them modernize, and they love us for it." You want to smack them right in the mouth, but Peosey doesn't editorialize. He just lets them dig their own rhetorical graves.
Peosey also outlines the story of American involvement in Tibet, describing how two decades of CIA support for Tibetan guerrillas came to a sudden end as soon as good ol' Henry Kissinger decided to reach out to Beijing in 1971. Today, America's economic interest in China is far to important to risk by bringing up such a touchy subject. While big business may contend that economic progress leads to social freedom, human rights experts scoff at the notion and point out that China is doing whatever it can to control dissent so that China doesn't fall to pieces the way the Soviet Union did. Plus, since Tibet is a huge buffer zone between China and India, the two largest countries in the world (and both nuclear powers), he who controls Tibet controls Asia. Nothing's going to change soon.
The DVD is packed with extras, including additional interviews with Thurman and the Dalai Lama, scenes of Tibetan life in exile in Nepal, and various ceremonial dances. This is the kind of documentary that preaches to the converted, but it preaches well and may serve to inspire more people to take action on behalf of Tibet, even if it seems like a cause that may already be lost.