Sure to stir the indignation over the Himalayan country’s plight, “Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion” functions better as an educational and agitprop film than the sort of artistically daring, personally informed docu that would set it apart from the rest of the nonfiction field. The film is, at times, emotionally riveting — yet also has an institutional feeling, largely because it attempts to cover too much ground in too little time. This reportorial companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” is sure to generate some strong fest play, with wider public exposure likelier in cable than theatrical.
Prelude tells of the 1987 riots by Tibetan nationals against 38 years of Chinese rule. The account is built on series of eyewitness reports and a string of stunning photos, mainly of Buddhist monk Jampa Tenzin, whose courage in the face of bullets and a fiery inferno turned him into a Tibetan hero.
Maps and superb landscape lensing (care of director Tom Peosay) establish Tibet as a land on “the roof of the world,” covering much of the Himalayas as well as a high, fertile eastern plateau — the clear object of eventual Chinese interest.
Setting Tibet truly apart, however, has been its place as the home to the centuries old Tibetan Buddhism, shown here as more of a spectacle than anything else, with its esoteric dimensions left aside. If there’s a strong personal conviction suggested by Peosay and his filmmaking team of Sue Peosay, Victoria Mudd and fellow producer Maria Florio, it’s respect for the religion’s pacifism and compassion, embodied by the self-exiled 14th Dalai Lama — despite the monk society’s long history as landlords over a vast population of laborers and serfs.
This last element was the political excuse Mao used in 1949 to send his troops into Tibet, a land China had long considered its own, but with which it has, except for a shared border few direct cultural or linguistic ties. Pic’s impressive amount of archival footage of the invasion and subsequent military clampdowns is, cinematically, the film’s highlight, and the most shocking proof of an ongoing human rights catastrophe.
Horrifying, but impersonal, statistics (such as claims of 87,000 dead in 1959 central Tibet alone) are buttressed by first-person accounts of witnessed atrocities, either from Brit Robert Ford, one of the few Westerners who watched the invasion up close, or such survivors as Adhe Tapontsang, who shows a quilt she made of clothing worn by fellow prisoners who did not survive.
Final half of the pic is far too packed with information to produce the kind of powerful punch the film intends; details of a CIA-backed resistance movement, and its eventual collapse when the U.S. pulled support, sounds like a rich parable itself on misguided American foreign policy, but it’s much too rushed here.
The film’s conclusion — that Tibet’s freedom will finally be based on a changed, reformed China — is politically astute, but sounds in this context to be based more on hope than hard analysis. While such renowned Hollywood liberals as Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Ed Harris fill the soundtrack with narration and voiceovers (where, though, is Richard Gere?), the Tibet issue has long been one held with shared passion by those on the left (human rightists, New-agers, Buddhists, pacifists) and the right (anti-Communists, China opponents) in the U.S., with the latter somewhat under-represented here.
Visual blend of video, film and photos is smooth, making doc especially viewable on the bigscreen.