Seven years in Tibet

By Harry van Versendaal

Seven years in the making, Dirk Simon’s controversial film “When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun” made its international premiere this week at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Based on 800 hours of footage shot in India, Beijing and Chinese-occupied Lhasa, the German-born director deftly unfolds the story-within-the-story of Tibet’s liberation movement: a damaging split between followers of the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent, middle-way policy and Tibetan radicals who have come to see violence as the only way to shake off Chinese domination. Beijing claims Tibet is part of China.

With the countdown to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the Olympic Torch route fiasco as a backdrop, Simon presents exclusive interviews, rare archival material and breathtaking imagery – all wrapped up in a super soundtrack crafted by Philip Glass, Thom Yorke and Damien Rice. The morning after his movie earned the thunderous applause of the Thessaloniki audience, the Colorado-based filmmaker spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the making of and his expectations for this groundbreaking project.

Why did it take seven years to complete this movie?

I never intended to spend seven years making this film. First, it was a question of budget: From the beginning, I knew I wanted a movie that would be intriguing from a cinematographic and a musical point of view, and I knew this was not going to come cheap. Then it was the story and the research. For every answer, we would find ourselves with three more questions. For three or four years, the story just became bigger and more complicated.

How did things work out for you in terms of funding?

We didn’t get any support really. We applied for funding in the USA but we didn’t get any. Nor did we get any in Germany, part of the reason being that you have to spend some of that money in the country. We talked to a few German production companies but for them it was too expensive and too political. So we borrowed the money we didn’t have.

What other problems did you have to overcome?

There were many logistical problems. We had a lot of overseas shooting, remote locations, and getting the equipment on top of a mountain was a challenge.

Of course, shooting in China and Tibet was a big question mark. We couldn’t apply for any permits; just mentioning the name of Tibet would raise enough flags in China. Once you put yourself out there with a project like this, you risk jeopardizing the entire project. They might not give you visas or could even try to stop you from doing anything at all.

So you opted to lay low.

Yes, we tried to keep a low profile but also to gain the trust of individuals and support groups. I believe we were the only media group, if you like, who knew that the protest on San Francisco’s Golden Gate would take place and that’s how we were able to put a helicopter on standby [to film the protest]. Gaining their trust was a process of several years. Obviously, they had to be very secretive and gaining their trust was not easy.

The movie features no statements by Chinese officials. Does that not affect the neutrality of the movie?

No, I don’t think so. It’s almost like a general rule: “You have to have all sides in there.” In the beginning, I wanted to [include them] but then I realized that it wasn’t going to help the project and wasn’t going to help the Chinese either. They weren’t going to look better. They were only going to look worse.

But there must be Chinese intellectuals or activists who object to the official line.

This is true. After the uprising of March 2008 [the 49th anniversary of the failed uprising against Beijing in 1959] there was a group of about 20 intellectuals and dissidents who wrote an open letter to their government and some got arrested over that. But it was risky. I was trying to contact one well-known person but we kept missing each other. We had to be very secretive, it was like an undercover operation. It all happened in Beijing during the Olympics; she was watched constantly and we had to assume that we were too. Rather than have some Chinese showing that they are compassionate to the Tibetans, I tried a different approach, which was showing these contemporary artists, basically showing Chinese who also care about humanity and freedom. I did not want to make it a one-dimensional movie, so to speak. I wanted it to have many facets.

You take a clear stand on the China-Tibet standoff but you don’t take an equally clear stance on the division within the Tibet liberation movement. Was that done on purpose, was it because you had not made up your mind, or did you want the audience to draw their own conclusions?

All of the above, in a way. I knew I was not going to find the final answer, so it was more important to raise the right questions. For me personally, it’s very hard to make a decision as to which is the right way. I have a personal history of growing up under communism and escaping. I can see myself picking up a stone at some point and throwing it.

Even so, I intellectually understand the concept of nonviolence and that this should be the right way. I feel torn too. I think the only way to come to a solution is to discuss, but not in the way that it has been done over the past 20 years, where people just keep going back and forth. [Tibetans need] leadership and inspiration and to become united again. The real Achilles heel for the Tibetan movement right now is that lack of unity and that lack of leadership. They haven’t gone anywhere for 20 years.

Did growing up in a divided Germany influence you in making this movie?

Absolutely. I was a teenager when this started to affect me, this growing desire for freedom. And I started to realize that something was wrong in my own country, which eventually led me to leave everything behind, family, friends, all belongings. Freedom has ever since been a very important topic to me.

Has making this movie made you more or less upbeat about a solution?

It’s a roller-coaster ride, really. [After the San Francisco Torch fiasco], everyone was celebrating that the party didn’t happen and they were so happy. What I felt was actually sadness. After all this shouting and yelling, I felt there will never be a dialogue; it’s impossible. They are so entrenched and there is so much hatred, it seemed like they will never overcome it. All we saw was a huge triumph for the Chinese government. At the end, we all joined in and we clapped our hands and said that this was such an amazing opening ceremony. But there is not much hope left.

I am actually happy but also surprised that audiences have said they found the movie “inspiring.” People truly understand that what I really meant to say is: “This is about to fail. We are on the verge of failure. The most famous nonviolent movement is on the verge of failure and not just because China is so dominant but also because we are not supporting it; we are allowing the Chinese to do what they want.”

Near the end of the movie, an interviewee draws a comparison between Nazi Germany’s extermination of the Jews and China’s crackdown on the Tibetans. Don’t you think that statement was over the top?

That is probably the point we discussed the most in the 15-month editing process. I knew it was provocative in many ways. We discussed it with many people. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the Americans found it bold but accepted it, it was easy to get the image. Germans were very, very nervous. They thought we were crossing a line here. But my concern was also the Jewish community, how they would feel if we allowed the Tibetans to say this on film. And, of course, I was concerned about the Chinese, because the film also reaches out to them. In the end, we left the statement because I felt “What if he is right?” I mean, imagine if someone at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin had made a film predicting the Holocaust.

Even if we might not experience a Holocaust like that of the last century, what we are seeing is a society that is not even hiding its aspiration for dominance and one that is going not just for Asia but global domination. It is not even hiding it. We all believe that Tibet is something far, far away while the Chinese are, politically speaking, already knocking very heavily on our door.

Click here to watch the official video.

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