In a welcome departure from many previous films about the decades-long friction between Tibet and China, “The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom” provides a two-sided view of the complex political and social dynamics within and outside Tibet. For the “struggle” in the film’s title is not merely against China but also between competing Tibetan views regarding the best strategy: co-existence or independence. Such a broad-minded perspective should help Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s film travel far and wide on the fest circuit, with first-class production values making it especially ripe for vid and TV sales.
“The Sun Behind the Clouds” has already generated some publicity in the wake of China’s decision to remove two Mainland-produced films from the Palm Springs Film Festival, including Lu Chuan’s “City of Life and Death,” when the fest refused Chinese demands not to screen the docu. Whether the move will have a chilling effect on “Sun’s” American fest prospects remains to be seen, but the brouhaha is ironic given that Sarin and Sonam are less concerned with dwelling on past Chinese injustices than on internal Tibetan disputes.
Chinese authorities were probably set off in part by the film’s inclusion of remarkable clandestine footage from the 2008 unrest in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, marking the largest revolt since the 1959 rebellion against China’s imposed rule and occupation.
This material proves an exception in what is not an angry film but a notably calm, well-considered and balanced one. These qualities also ran through “Dreaming Lhasa,” the pair’s previous film and only narrative work, but that film’s cliches are avoided in this reportorial context. As longtime documenters of the Tibetan struggle, Sarin and Sonam (who provides thoughtful narration) are in an excellent position to capture every side of the Tibetan question, with their considerable personal access to the Dalai Lama as well as to those in the grassroots movement opposing what they consider his accommodating stance vis-a-vis China.
A brief background history explains China’s entry into Tibet in the 1950s and the Dalai Lama’s eventual exile. His efforts to find a so-called middle way with the large power is explained as integral to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, which continually seeks to find the golden mean in all walks of life. It’s also born, to no small extent, of his many years as the standard-bearer and face of the Tibetan people and the target of official Chinese criticism.
At the same time, the film amplifies the voices of the holy man’s many critics among his own people, from famed poet Woeser to activist Jamyang Norbu. Much of this may be new to many Western audiences, whose primary view of Tibet tends to be through the Dalai Lama’s well-publicized paradigm. The film doggedly covers a 2,500-kilometer march for independence in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics as well as a telling debate that arises between marchers over tactics and themes.
The arguments over independence (does it even make sense anymore in a Tibet that will soon see Tibetans become a minority of the population?) or middle-way co-existence (is this a surrender that ensures Tibetan cultural and political eradication?) animate the people in front of the filmmakers’ many cameras, but they also seem to reflect a generational divide, with younger Tibetans-in-exile leading the independence charge.
The extensive lensing crew, based in various countries, conveys the sense of a film that’s everywhere at once. A supporting solo guitar score by Gustavo Santolalla smartly cuts against audience expectations of a specifically Tibetan soundtrack.