Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

On Film, a Monk's Passion and Protest

July 29, 2008

By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK
The New York Times
July 6, 2008

Correction Appended

They seemed an unlikely pair -- the Tibetan Buddhist monk who had
spent 33 years in Chinese prisons and labor camps and the aspiring
Japanese filmmaker.

The filmmaker, Makoto Sasa, said she first heard of the monk, Palden
Gyatso, when she was in college in Japan. After she arrived in New
York to study film, alone and speaking no English, she read his
memoir, "The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk" (Grove Press, 1997).
"His story made me think my problem is nothing," she said.

Ms. Sasa, 35, decided to make a documentary about him. She began
raising money, with loans, donations and a grant from the New York
State Council on the Arts. She shot the film, "Fire Under the Snow,"
in Tibet, Italy and India, where Mr. Gyatso, 77, now lives.

In order to film in Tibet, Ms. Sasa entered as a tourist. And late
last month, Mr. Gyatso came to New York to help raise money to
distribute the film and to continue his decades of protest against
Chinese rule in his homeland.

He stayed in the East Side apartment of the film's executive
producer, Maura Moynihan, rising at about 4:30 each morning with
hours of prayer.

In the film, he tells of how his own existence, as well as that of
Tibet, became frighteningly narrow and harsh after the Chinese
invasion of 1950.

In 1959, the Dalai Lama, Tibet's leader, fled to India during an
uprising in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Mr. Gyatso marched in
protests during the uprising and was arrested when he returned to his
monastery.

The Chinese authorities accused him and another monk who had been his
mentor of being spies for India. When Mr. Gyatso refused to denounce
the other monk or the Dalai Lama, soldiers hung him "naked like a
light bulb from the ceiling," he said, and beat him with iron bars.
He was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison. In 1962, Mr.
Gyatso and six other prisoners escaped and got as far as the Nepalese
border. He was captured and sentenced to another eight years.

He was sent to a labor camp in 1975. But when he posted a sign
advocating Tibetan independence he was ordered imprisoned for another
eight years in 1983. During that last term Mr. Gyatso lost several
teeth and his sense of taste when a jailer shoved a cattle prod down
his throat.

Human rights groups helped secure Mr. Gyatso's release in 1992. He
fled Tibet by walking for 20 days over the Himalayas, finally
arriving in Dharamsala, India, home of many Tibetan refugees,
including the Dalai Lama.

Mr. Gyatso came to the United States in 1994 and testified before
Congress. He showed the congressmen several instruments of torture
that he had smuggled out.

On this visit, he attended several candlelight vigils for Tibet at
Union Square, and one morning he went to ground zero to pray for
those who had died there.

The film about Mr. Gyatso -- "Fire Under the Snow," which was the
original title of his memoir -- will be shown as part of the
International Documentary Association's Docuweek in New York from
Aug. 8 to 14 and in Los Angeles from Aug. 22 to 28. As its makers are
quick to point out, those dates overlap with the Olympic Games in Beijing.

Mr. Gyatso said through an interpreter that he believed that holding
the Olympics in Beijing contradicted the spirit of the Games as "a
celebration of human rights, of equality, freedom" because China had
shown "no respect for human rights, no respect for freedom."

As he spoke again of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, his eyes
flashed and he punctuated his speech with emphatic gestures. "What
the Chinese government really wants," he said, "is to eliminate
Tibetan culture, to basically terminate everything that is Tibetan."

Despite his experiences, Mr. Gyatso said he felt compassion for his
tormenters. In one scene in the film he says he "can't entirely blame
the officials for beating me, because if they didn't beat me enough
they would be dismissed."

Ms. Moynihan, who became fascinated with Tibet when her father,
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the future senator, was the United States
ambassador to India in the 1970s, agreed to become the executive
producer after Ms. Sasa showed the film at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.

"We will never have this opportunity again, when the world spotlight
will be focused on China," Ms. Moynihan said.

She first met Mr. Gyatso in 1994 and considers him "the face" of the
Tibetan protest.

"He speaks for the dead, for the tortured, for the incarcerated, for
the silenced," she said.

Mr. Gyatso, who filled his free moments in her apartment by painting
calligraphy, said he had "no regrets in my life because I have made a
humble contribution to the Tibetan cause, and to the cause of freedom
and nonviolence around the world."

Correction: July 13, 2008
An article in some editions last Sunday about "Fire Under the Snow,"
a documentary about a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Palden Gyatso, who spent
33 years in Chinese prisons and labor camps, misstated the
circumstances under which the filmmaker, Makoto Sasa, was able to get
into Tibet. She entered as a tourist; she did not, as Mr. Gyatso
said, enter by pretending to be making a different film, about a Lama
supported by the Chinese government. The article also conflated two
people in Mr. Gyatso's explanation: the Lama who was backed by
Beijing is not the same one whose childhood home is across the street
from Mr. Gyatso's childhood home in Tibet.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank