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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Roots and wings (an update)

February 2, 2010

Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin have been making
films on Tibet for 20 years now. It's their way
of spreading the message, they tell Gargi Gupta
Gargi Gupta
Business Standard (India)
January 30, 2010

New Delhi -- A little controversy is generally a
good thing -- it draws eyeballs. But this year’s
Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF),
held between January 5 and 18 in the Californian
town bordering the desert, had a little too much
of it. First there was Mariah Carey slurring her
way through her speech on opening night.

That was funny; but what happened over the next
few days wasn’t. The Chinese government decided
to pull out two Chinese films, City of Life and
Death and Quick, Quick, Slow, due to be shown at
the festival. The reason? The PSIFF had declined
its request that the festival drop The Sun Behind
the Clouds, an 80-minute documentary by Indian
filmmakers Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin that
follows the Dalai Lama and traces the violence in
Tibet and elsewhere in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

However, Darryl Macdonald, director of PSIFF, did
not give in to the arm-twisting. "We have freedom
of expression in this country," the New York
Times quoted him telling the Chinese, "and we
would not allow any foreign country to dictate
what films we should or should not play."

And so The Sun Behind the Clouds was screened --
very successfully, point out Sarin and Sonam,
back in the one-room office of their production
house, White Crane Films, tucked away in a corner of south Delhi.

"There was so much demand that we had three
completely booked out screenings," says Sarin,
"and a fourth one after the film won the audience
award for ‘Best of the Fest’. Many in the
audience stayed behind for the interactive
session. Tibet is large in the mindscape of the
West, but they do not know the entire complex
story. They’d heard a bit about the Dalai Lama,
the Chinese repression, but they didn’t know what
it means to be an exile, or the complex issues
stirring the community today. They sat there for
a really long time asking in-depth questions and
afterwards followed us out, continuing to ask."

The audience at the PSIFF couldn’t have asked for
two people better equipped to satisfy their
curiosity. Sarin and Sonam have made as many as
13 documentaries on the region since 1991. In
2005, their much-acclaimed feature Dreaming
Lhasa, had a limited commercial release at
theatres in India, the US and Europe.

"We’ve been making films about the Dalai Lama for
the past 20 years," says Sarin. The couple have
taken their cameras and crew into monasteries all
over India and Nepal, filming the monks at work
and play, and often enough for their subjects to
become unselfconscious. "They don’t mind us,
we’re like family," Sarin emphasises. Such
access, combined with the perspective that long
association brings, gives their films a human
insight into the intractable Tibetan issue, using
culture, lore and religion to bring alive the
tragedy of six million people whose very identity
and way of life are under threat.

One of their early films, The Trials of Telo
Rinpoche, was about a 21-year-old American
struggling to come to terms with his destiny
after the Dalai Lama anoints him reincarnation of
a high lama and charges him with reviving
Buddhism in Kalmykia, a remote area in southern
Russia. In 1999, they made Big Treasure Chest for
Future Kids -- Tibet, a whimsical tale of a
magnificent treasure chest that appears in a
Tibetan Children’s Village (centres for children
orphaned or separated from their families during their escape from Tibet).

It also helps that Sonam is a first-generation
Tibetan refugee, the son of Lhamo Tsering who
came to India after the Chinese occupation and
rose to become minister in the exile government
before his death in 1999. Tsering was also a key
figure in "ST Circus," a covert CIA operation in
Tibet to supply arms and strategic inputs to a
ragtag group of Tibetan resistance fighters who
had waged an armed struggle against the Chinese
in the 50s and 60s. It’s a chapter in the history
of the Tibetan resistance that few know about
today (given how the Dalai Lama’s pacifist
discourse has come to dominate the debate) and
Sarin and Sonam made a documentary on the subject
in 1998, The Shadow Circus "The CIA in Tibet, commissioned by the BBC.

Despite all that, it hasn’t been an easy journey
for the husband-wife duo who met as undergraduate
students in Delhi in the 70s, and later again
when they were both studying filmmaking in the
San Francisco Bay Area -- Sarin at the California
College of the Arts, and Sonam at the University
of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of
Journalism -- and spending their spare time
"actively watching films, sometimes five-six a
week" and setting up Tibetan support groups.

It never is easy for independent filmmakers, even
those with such high-profile supporters as
Richard Gere and Francesca von Habsburg, a
prominent figure in the European art world (both
have been executive producers on White Crane’s projects).

Even Dreaming Lhasa, their most high profile
film, "did not make any money at all," rues
Sonam. Made on a budget of around Rs 2 crore, the
film grossed just Rs 15 lakh at the US box
office. But perhaps box office grosses are not a
measure of the success of independent
documentaries. Sarin and Sonam are now working on
their next feature film -- "a spiritual Zen road
movie set in the high Himalayas." Have they
considered going mainstream? Sarin doesn’t rule
it out. "In Mumbai there is today this new ethos
of corporate financiers and people working to
scripts. Maybe we need to look at reaching a
larger audience in India," she says.

The Sun Behind the Clouds has bagged a two week
slot at the Film Forum, New York’s leading movie
hall for independent cinema at the end of March.
Ironically, this slot had been reserved for City
of Life and Death, the Chinese film withdrawn from the PSIFF.

The Sun behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for
Freedom will be screened at the National Centre
for the Performing Arts, Mumbai on March 7, and
at the India International Centre, Delhi on March 12
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