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Skirmishes and Struggles Over Tibet Docs

Filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam (photo courtesy of Friends of

Filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam (photo courtesy of Friends of

Chinese authorities have withdrawn two films from the Palm Springs International Film Festival (Jan. 5-18) in protest of the scheduled screening of a documentary about Tibet and the Dalai Lama.

The more prominent of two films, City of Life and Death (also known as Nanjing! Nanjing!), written and directed by Lu Chuan, is a critically acclaimed fictionalized account of atrocities committed by the Japanese occupiers in 1937. According to a report on The Desert Sun, a local paper at Palm Springs, CA, the festival director Darryl Macdonald “regards the film as one of the best unsung films in the festival, but said its merit isn’t enough to subvert the festival’s adherence to artistic freedom.” The other film is Ye Kai’s comedy Quick, Quick, Slow.

A report on the New York Times calls the dispute “a bona fide diplomatic incident,” observing that “while Chinese officials told the festival’s director that the filmmakers themselves had decided to withdraw their state-financed works, many China experts believe that it is the state sending a message, rather than the individuals.”

The report also reviews the recent history of “protest[s] by Chinese officials that the arts, and film specifically, are being used as a weapon to meddle in their internal affairs.”

In August, two American filmmakers were blocked from traveling to China to present their documentary about the more than 5,000 children in Sichuan Province who died when a 2008 earthquake caused numerous schools to collapse. Computer hackers and demonstrators took aim at the Melbourne International Film Festival in Australia in July to protest its screening of a documentary about a leader of Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang region of northwest China, where some 200 people were killed in ethnic violence last summer. And at last fall’s Frankfurt Book Fair, a diplomatic struggle emerged over the fair’s invitation to two dissident Chinese writers to speak at its official program honoring China.

The target of this protest is The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom, directed by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. According to the program at Palm Springs, the film “follow[ed] [the Dalai Lama] over an eventful year, including the 2008 protest in Tibet, the long march in India, the Beijing Olympics and the breakdown of talks with China.”

More news, and a trailer of The Sun Behind the Clouds, after the break.

The Chinese officials reminded the festival programmers that the United States government had an official position to admit Tibet as part of China. To this, Macdonald stated his position in detail in another report on Screen Daily:

I’m saddened that the Chinese film authorities have chosen to withdraw their films from PSIFF, as the festival is an international cultural event whose mandate is to present a wide cross-section of perspectives and points of view. That said, we cannot allow the concerns of one country or community to dictate what films we should or should not play, based on their own cultural or political perspective. Freedom of expression is a concept that is integral both to the validity of artistic events, and indeed, to the ethos of this country.

The New York Times report also cites director Lu Chuan’s telephone interview with the Associated Press last Tuesday, in which he said, “The incident involves national interest. National interests trump everything. When it comes to national unity, I think the attitude of all Chinese is the same.”

Stanley Rosen, the director of the East Asian Studies Center at the University of Southern California, interpreted Lu’s reaction otherwise to the Times:

“There is no way that he could continue having his films in international festivals and be successful in China” without succumbing to pressure to have his film withdrawn, given that the government financed the film and must approve all Chinese films that are exported.

On a related note, another documentary about Tibet met similar obstruction at home. Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen, whose arrest we mentioned in an earlier post, has recently been sentenced for a six-year imprisonment, after making a documentary critical of Beijing’s policies, Leaving Fear Behind.

The films featured interviews with ordinary Tibetans who expressed their love for the Dalai Lama, their exiled spiritual leader, and said the Olympics would do little to improve their lives.”The Chinese say they have made improvements in Tibet. But we don’t see any improvement at all,” Wangchen said in the documentary. “The truth is that Tibetans are not free to speak of their suffering.”

Reuters reports the same event:

Dhondup Wangchen’s sentencing took place on December 28 in Xining, Qinghai’s provincial capital, said a statement on a website ( promoting the film, which is also campaigning for his release. The website said the film-maker had no access to outside legal help, and the government had barred a lawyer hired by his family from representing him.

According to another report on Tech.Blorge, the Great Firewall of China has made IMDb, the Internet Movie Database, the latest site to be blocked. Although there is no official comment, rumors on Twitter suggest that the block has been put in place due to a number of films detailing Tibet and its struggle for freedom being present on the site. In particular, Digital Inspiration claims the documentary When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun is the main reason behind the block.

Returning to the NY Times report on Palm Springs, we close with this comment by Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution: “Tibet is an issue that is especially neuralgic for Beijing.”


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