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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Joshua Dugdale on the Dalai Lama: the gaze that won me over

May 16, 2008

Joshua Dugdale wanted to find out the truth about the Dalai Lama.
He ended up filming his every move for three years
Times Online (UK)
May 15, 2008

The Dalai Lama has an insatiable and infectious laugh, says Dugdale

To the astonishment of the West, the Chinese Government continues to
suggest that the recent demonstrations in Tibet have been instigated
by the Dalai Lama. But this is an old theme. A deep-rooted mistrust
of the Dalai Lama's motives is something that has characterised the
Chinese position for many years. Back in 2004, when I decided to make
a documentary on the Tibetan leader, the question of his sincerity
was my central concern.

I wanted to provide a personal study of the man, examining his
motivation in detail as he went about his daily business balancing
the spiritual and political anxieties of an exiled Tibetan population
with the political tightrope of maintaining a gentle pressure on
China through concerted international diplomacy. Western audiences
had, I felt, become saturated by his television appearances restating
commitment to nonviolence with his characteristic blend of stoic
nobility and mischievous good humour.

A fly-on-the-wall account of his life would provide a human
counterpoint to the political emblem that the saffron-clad statesman
had become. It would also evaluate his responsibility for events by
studying the genesis of his political position and the daily attitude
towards the Chinese. By showing his response to events, it would peek
through the public façade into how this mild-mannered man had come to
terms with his vilification by Beijing.

In my three years of following the Dalai Lama on trips throughout
India and Europe, it was impossible ever to forget the sensitivity of
any comment he makes to the media. He is keenly aware that anything
he says or does is potential fodder for those factions in the Beijing
administration intent on discrediting his motivations. This dilemma
is made more difficult by the Chinese practice of using transcripts
of his speeches as their primary source.

I witnessed the weaknesses of this literal approach in a meeting
between the Dalai Lama and his special envoy to China. The envoy
reported that the Chinese delegation had restated its belief that the
Dalai Lama was committed to pursuing independence for Tibet, rather
than the autonomy which he is understood by the West to be
advocating. The Chinese delegation pointed to a particular recent
speech in which, the Tibetan envoy pointed out, the word "freedom"
had been mistranslated as "independence".

The sensitivity of the Dalai Lama's position led to my first two
requests to make the film being refused, so I went to meet the man
face to face. I had sought the advice of Kate Saunders, then head of
the Tibetan Information Network, which provides a steady flow of
corroborated information about circumstances in Tibet. Charming and
intelligent, she informs the Western media of the Dalai Lama's
position and of developments in the region.

With a couple of brief phone calls she had secured me a berth on a
trip to Dharamsala, accompanying Joan-na Lumley, long-time pro-Tibet
campaigner, and the renowned photographer Tom Stoddart. I was
assigned cover as Lumley's camera-man to justify my attendance on the
trip. The device jarred slightly, but my previous BBC documentary
subjects had included corruption in the LAPD, and I was comfortable
with the principle of blurred intentions.

A number of things struck me when the Dalai Lama entered the
antechamber in his north Indian residence where we had been waiting,
clutching silk scarves for the customary blessing. The first was his
footwear. In 1999, with his Star TV satellite channel making early
inroads into southern China, Rupert Murdoch said: "I've heard cynics
say he's a political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes". My
inspections revealed modest teacher-style loafers.

Far more striking than his couture, however, is the quietly joyous
charisma that follows him into the room. It is irresistible,
ubiquitous, and extended equally towards all guests, irrespective of
rank or standing. The intensity of his eye contact when he speaks to
you is unerring (my film is titled The Unwinking Gaze). When he is
talking to you he makes you feel like the only person in the room.

And then there is his sense of humour. His insatiable laugh -- he
once laughed so much when I choked on some Tibetan tsampa
(essentially porridge) that he had tears down his cheeks – proved
infectious wherever he went, from addresses in front of thousands of
Canadian supporters to his meeting with President Bush at his
congressional award presentation last year.

Certainly he uses this indefatigable humour to deflect unwanted
questioning, occasionally hiding disappointment or frustration. But I
came to believe that it was heartfelt, underpinning an optimism about
human nature and a complete conviction in his approach.

This is not to say that the burden of his task does not weigh on him.
Many times during filming he was prevented from his planned itinerary
due to Chinese pressure on his hosts. One time he was forced to
cancel a trip to Belgium since it clashed with a state visit by the
Belgian king to Beijing and the Chinese were privately threatening to
cancel major bilateral commercial contracts if it went ahead.

When I asked the Dalai Lama's private secretary whether the move had
been made under duress, he paused, face twisting between the
competing demands of conscience and political caution, before
declining to comment.

I took the issue to the Dalai Lama, suggesting that the Buddhist
devotees who had invited him had been waiting for five years for the
visit. He sighed. "That's the reality," he responded, a rather
forceful grin in my direction, obstinate in his sanguine resolve not
to compromise his Belgian allies and, more significantly, avoiding
the criticism of his "Chinese brothers and sisters".

He always provided us with extraordinary access, seeming to disregard
the camera entirely. Not once was he a difficult subject. Sometimes
his generosity embarrassed me. On a visit to Bodh Gaya in the east
Indian state of Bihar, where the Buddha is said to have gained
enlightenment, he stopped a procession of 100,000 fervent Tibetan
devotees to give me a private potted history of Buddha's enlightenment.

Mostly, this benevolent camaraderie hides a fierce and combative
intelligence. And, despite his total disregard for the definite
article, which combined with his gurgling voice to remind me
frequently of Yoda, he is highly articulate. This is most clear in a
two-hour interview he granted me at the end of my filming last year.
During an intense head-to-head exchange he revealed a tremendous
intellectual force.

The interview in part distilled a cautious scepticism with which I
had tried to inform the film, and its outcome was revealing. I
wondered what might happen if the Chinese could bring themselves to
go through the same process. Watching my film – an optimistic
prospect perhaps – would be a start.

Joshua Dugdale's film The Unwinking Gaze is on limited release from
May 29 2008,
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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