Tibetan filmmaker exposes Chinese oppression in occupied Tibet

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Film on China's oppression in Tibet
Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen in the middle after the screening of his documentary on Tibet (Photo: Students for a Free Tibet)

On International Human Rights Day (10 December), Students For a Free Tibet held a screening of the documentary – “Leaving Fear Behind – Risking Everything, Tibetans Inside Tibet Speak Out” – by Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen, in his presence. The SFT has been holding many more such screenings over the week in various US states to draw attention to Chinese repression in China-occupied Tibet.

(Image Courtesy – Students For a Free Tibet Facebook page)

Wangchen spent 6 years in Chinese prison under the charges of “state subversion” for documenting the plight of Tibetans on camera and smuggling the footage out of China in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

After being released from a Chinese prison on 5th June 2014, he was placed under surveillance by the Chinese authorities and was not allowed to travel outside of China to reunite with his family. However, in December 2017, he managed to flee to the US and has since been working to raise awareness about the Tibetan cause and the freedom movement of Tibet.

The screening commemorated the 15th anniversary of the documentary and the ongoing hardships faced by Tibetans inside occupied-Tibet. It was followed by a Q&A session where Wangchen shared his experiences encountered while filming the documentary, the motivation behind risking his family and livelihood to capture the voices of Tibetans inside Tibet, and the need to preserve the Tibetan language to safeguard their identity, which is facing a concerted extermination attempt from the Chinese regime.

Leaving Fear Behind

The 25 minute documentary details the plight of Tibetans, their hopes, aspirations, and fears in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The solemn background score captures the raw emotions of Tibetans, the extent of Chinese oppression in the region, and their tenacity in the face of unending disdain. 

For five months in 2007-2008, Wangchen travelled through Tibet to document the perspectives of Tibetans on the Beijing Olympics of that year.

It is based on 40 hours of raw footage from 108 interviews conducted in Amdo, a traditional Tibetan province, in 2008, despite significant risks from the Chinese administration. On 10 March 2008, he handed over the tapes to Dechen Pemba, a British citizen in Xi’an, China. On the same day, a violent protest erupted in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa in which 18 people lost their lives and most of them were Han Chinese.

Dhondup Wangchen and Golog Jigme, the Tibetan monk who assisted him in the project, were arrested a few days after finishing their filming. Nonetheless, on the eve of the Beijing Olympics (6 August 2008), the documentary was secretively screened to foreign media in Beijing.

After the film’s release, Dhondup Wangchen received a six-year prison sentence on charges of ‘inciting separatism’. He endured forced manual labor and spent six months in solitary confinement. While his assistant, Jigme fled to India in 2014 and a year later, he was granted political asylum in Switzerland.

Wangchen’s documentary has earned him multiple international accolades, including the 2012 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists and the 2014 Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent. It had been screened at various film festivals around the world.

(Image courtesy – Students For a Free Tibet Facebook page)

Major takeaways of the documentary and live event

The major focus of the documentary and the remarks at these recurrent screenings has been on the need for the preservation of the Tibetan language which is the foundational footing to keep the existence of Tibetan culture and mindset alive. However, on several occasions, Wangchen points out that there has been a generational gap and bridge in relaying the Tibetan language and culture to the next generations. 

Regarding this, Wangchen during the session emphasised on the preservation of the Tibetan language as the Chinese govt is on a mission to eradicate the Tibetan language which is to eradicate the Tibetan identity.

He said that “in 1993, young Tibetans despite knowing Chinese [sic] refused to speak Chinese [sic] because that’s the language of colonisers and oppressors”.

Although he never met his mother again and remained away from his kids for a decade and noted that he was almost a stranger to his kids, he stressed that he left India “knowingly” to film this documentary as there were no other options. He added that he was undertaking a huge risk as several uprisings had taken place in China around that time.

“This film is about the plight of the Tibetan people – helpless and frustrated. Therefore I hope that everyone will pay special attention and support it. That’s my biggest hope”.

Meanwhile, despite being given the choice to conceal their identities, the majority of the interviewees opted to come on camera uncloaked and expressed concerns about the Sinicization of Tibetan culture and large-scale Han Chinese migration into the Tibetan region.

It is important to note that Tibetans face persecution for as basic human rights as possessing pictures of the Dalai Lama.

Regarding this, one man in the documentary notes, “We’re not free to possess photos of the Dalai Lama so we have to hide them. If the government finds them they confiscate them. A while ago we were told that these kinds of photos were not allowed so we have to keep them secret. Otherwise, they will be taken away.”

In the documentary, Wangchen explains how the Chinese do the exact opposite of what they preach on the global stage. 

Wangchen notes, “ Nowadays, what China is saying is that they are preserving and improving Tibetan culture and language. That’s what they are telling the world. Many organisations and offices have been set up for these things. What they say and what they do are totally different, opposites. If they really want to preserve and improve Tibetan culture and language, they should withdraw all the Chinese people living in Tibetan areas. Tibetan culture and language have to be practiced in all Tibetan areas. If it’s not practiced, how can it be preserved? It can’t.”

He adds, “The situation in Tibet, instead of improving is getting worse and worse every year.”

However, an old Tibetan man in the documentary encapsulated Tibetan’s apprehensions against the Chinese in the wake of their brutal repression by the Chinese regime. The old man remarked, “I don’t trust the Chinese at all. Not one bit.”

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