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'Angry Monk': Doc offers sharper image of Tibet

January 3, 2009

G. Allen Johnson
San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, January 1, 2009
The first thing that's noticeable about Luc Schaedler's Tibetan documentary, "Angry Monk," is that there is no interview with the Dalai Lama. No Tibetan doc is without one, it seems, and it begs the question: Was the otherwise-accessible His Holiness unavailable?
No, Schaedler said. The Swiss filmmaker never asked for an interview.
"It's not that I have anything against the Dalai Lama," Schaedler said by phone from Zurich. "But if there's one voice heard in the world today (concerning Tibet), it's the Dalai Lama's voice. And I know for a fact, from being acquainted with a lot of Tibetans, that there is a small but still existing dissident community of exiled Tibetans that disagree with the politics of the Dalai Lama. ... I wanted a more critical look at Tibet and its past."
The focus of "Angry Monk" is instead a fellow from the past, Gendun Choephel (1903-51), who has gained iconic status among modern Tibetans for his unorthodox approach to spirituality and outspoken criticism of Tibetan government before the Chinese communist regime became a problem.
Choephel left the discipline in his 30s, traveled to India and experienced life in all its sinful pleasures - smoking, drinking, sex - which informed his popular writings that addressed spiritual, political and cultural matters.
"I had always wanted to do a film that (challenged) the Western perception of Tibet," said Schaedler, 45, who first went to Tibet in 1989. "Then I read an interview with an exiled Tibetan who lives in Switzerland who was a friend of Gendun Choephel. I found it interesting the way he described this person: a monk, but still somebody who had sex with prostitutes in India, who traveled, who was critical of his own society, who was imprisoned."
Schaedler was able to unearth footage of Choephel and early 20th century Tibet, some of which had only been recently discovered in an archive in Paris. He also gathered material from archives in England, India and America.
Schaedler and his cameraman, disguised as tourists, went to Tibet to look at what's really going on. The modern section of "Angry Monk" includes scenes shot in neighborhoods, discos, and trips along modern highways in Lhasa, Tibet's capital.
"Tibet was not just this religious-country-almost-paradise before the Chinese invaded," said Schaedler, who, despite his critical view, is against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. "It was a country with its problems - with poverty, with slavery, with injustice, and monks who were against modernization and change.
"Western people project all their fantasies of an original, natural and ecological way of living, where spirituality is being one with nature. ... And then the bad Chinese invaded. It's not exactly true."
Opens Fri. Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., S.F. (415) 863-1087.
- G. Allen Johnson,
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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