April 10, 2003

Cornell Cinema

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This film enraged me. When I was finished watching it, I didn’t know what to say or do, I was simply stunned into silence by the sheer cruelty of this world. I was struck with the hopeless feeling that anything beautiful and pure in this world will eventually be destroyed by the kind of tyrannical leaders Dylan referred to as “the masters of war.” There can be no more safe quarter for pastoral innocence or peaceful spirituality. Any such place would long ago have been overrun by an insidious force bearing tanks and missiles and McDonald’s.

Tibet was such a place not so long ago, an isolated plateau separated from the faster pace of the world around it by natural boundaries. The region’s innocence has since died a sad and spectacular death, conquered and enslaved by the onrush of Chinese communism. But it is not just China that has culpability for the atrocities in Tibet; there is an implied responsibility right here in the United States, where our leaders supposedly care so much about human rights that we’re currently fighting a war over that very issue.

This documentary, shot over the course of nine visits to Tibet by the filmmakers, is a powerful and emotional record of the near-complete subjugation and genocide of what may have been the happiest, most peace-loving people on the planet. As the film progresses, starting with Tibet’s rich cultural past and slowly leading up to the Chinese invasion, it becomes more and more clear just how dire the consequences of the communist occupation of this region has been. The images from before the invasion depict a place far removed from our modern way of thinking, and yet so full of a vibrant, fun, common-sense way of life that just seeing it made my heart ache with longing to visit this place, to walk over its rolling hills and ascend to the top of its inspiring snowy peaks. These images of the not-so-distant past only increased my pain upon witnessing what the region looks like today.

Because, even more disheartening than all the abuse, torture, wholesale murder, and religious persecution endured by the Tibetan people — all acts of barbarism enough to make anyone cringe — is the more subtle cultural genocide that has decimated Tibet’s once-proud heritage. Chinese citizens have been imported to re-populate the area, bringing with them brothels, ugly urban sprawl, and crass commercialism. It’s a form of destruction not far removed from our own experiences, but on a far more overt and concentrated level. Just as the whole world has become homogenized and converted to over-glorified cityscapes, Tibet too has suffered the same indignity. The modern Tibet is nearly a commercial wasteland, where native Tibetans are unable to find work in competition with the Chinese, and their people’s cultural and religious landmarks have been converted into urban housing and money-making tourist attractions for the Chinese government.

All this, and the Dalai Lama, the voice of the Tibetan people in the international community, is given the Nobel Peace Prize, an empty gesture while the entire world otherwise turns a blind eye to China’s crimes. Perhaps if Tibet had valuable oil reserves, perhaps if the Western world did not rely so heavily on Chinese trade, the U.S. and its allies would be intervening in a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world. To hear the terrifying accounts of monks burned and buried alive, and nuns raped with electric cattle prods, and then to ignore it in the name of finance and trade, must be one of the worst transgressions in the modern world.

In the face of such apathy, with the Tibetan people being slowly sacrificed for business profits, this film stands as a necessary jolt. If this film’s cry for justice — echoing the cries of so many in Tibet and around the world — awakens only a few people to stand against criminal indifference, then it will have succeeded.

Archived article by Ed Howard