Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen has been in prison awaiting trial for the past year and a half, due to 25 minutes of low-key though frank conversation with Tibetans about the Chinese.
Rare are tales of a lone individual challenging China’s brutal censorship mechanism with a single act of bravery and determination. But that is the story of Dhondup Wangchen (see photo below). With the help of his friend, a Buddhist monk named Jigme Gyatso, also known as Golog Jigme, Wangchen has shown that limited means can be overcome to bring untold stories to global attention. In so doing, his plight has become a focal point for international Tibet-related publicity and activism at a time when, otherwise, related momentum had largely dissipated following the widespread protests of March-April 2008.
In the winter of 2007-08, the 35-year-old filmmaker and his friend travelled through remote areas of eastern Tibet. Under extremely harsh conditions, and with no previous camera experience, the two recorded the forthright views of more than 100 ordinary men and women in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic Games. At the end of the project, in March 2008, shortly after Wangchen managed to smuggle the recorded material to a cousin living abroad, the two were arrested – ironically, just as the mass demonstrations were about to begin in Tibet. Both have remained in detention ever since.
For more than a year and a half, Wangchen has languished in prison in the town of Xiling, in Qinghai Province, where he and Jigme are awaiting trial on charges of ‘inciting separatism’. Wangchen’s family members say he is in ill health, while a family-appointed legal representative has been denied access to the filmmaker. Even as its creators remain incarcerated, however, their work has taken on a life of its own. Despite China’s determination to suppress critical voices before and during the Olympic Games of 8-24 August 2008, Wangchen’s Jigdrel (the film has been released under the English title of Leaving Fear Behind) was shown to a small audience of foreign journalists on 6 August in Beijing. Since then, the documentary has been screened in more than 30 countries worldwide, and translated into five different languages, including Mandarin.
What exactly makes this film special? Is it the filmmakers’ fates as prisoners, their bravery, the film itself or something else? Leaving Fear Behind possesses, in this writer’s view, a quality that goes beyond such simple fathoming. On YouTube, there is a film showing pictures of Wangchen in his teens – a casual-looking young man, eager to leave behind the constrictions of his village in Amdo on a quest for adventure. In the documentary, Wangchen has clearly come of age, and talks seriously about giving a voice to those who have been forgotten. Without substantial knowledge of filming, he experimented and found a way of expressing himself, truthfully.
This act of defiance demands our admiration. Wangchen has taken a stance on truth, and nobody can tell where this adventure will take him. His work, however, is having a far wider impact than even he could have foreseen.
For this special issue on censorship, the editors of Himal felt that it was important to take a close look at a work that was “made under difficult circumstances”. With its creators having now remained in prison, uncharged, for more than 18 months for the simple act of speaking candidly with a cross-section of Tibetans, Jigdrel (Leaving Fear Behind) makes for a potent case study. As can be seen in the following tranlated full transcript of the narration and conversations contained in this 25-minute film, Dhondup Wangchen’s work unfortunately follows in line with much censored works of the past: it is not sensational, nor is most of it even harshly critical, but instead merely ferries unvarnished opinion from one place to another. As Wangchen’s work suggests, it is those who agreed to speak boldly on camera that have left their fear behind; as can be seen from the aftermath, it is perhaps the Chinese authorities who have not.
Jigdrel, Leaving Fear Behind
From October 2007 until March 2008, Dhondup Wangchen carried out a dangerous journey through the Eastern areas of Tibet. He wanted to record the views of ordinary Tibetans on the 2008 Olympic Games in China. Shortly after filming finished, Dhondup Wangchen and his assistant, Golog Jigme, were arrested.
I am not an educated man. I have never been to school. However, I would like to say a few things. What I would like to talk about comes from a discussion that a few of us had a few months ago. [Filmmaker walking down street] What we were discussing was that before the 2008 Olympic Games are going to be held in China, we should gather information about whether Tibetans in Tibet agree with the Games and their views on them.
[Monk walking along empty road in Tibet, surrounded by plateau desert]
If the 2008 Olympic Games take place, then they should stand for freedom and peace. As a Tibetan, I have neither freedom nor peace. Therefore, I don’t want these Games.
[Young woman speaking with snow-covered city streets in the background]
We have no independence or freedom, so Tibetans have no reason to celebrate. The Chinese have independence and freedom, so it’s something that they can celebrate. Take me, for example: I think the Olympics are important but I don’t like them.
[Young man with plateau desert in the background]
I’ve heard that all the countries of the world are gathering there to take part in a peaceful event. However, Tibetans aren’t allowed to attend. The Dalai Lama is famous all over the world for peace. I feel this and many others, too … it’s difficult to put in words … I feel it is the wish of thousands of Tibetans that he can go to the Olympic Games.
[Old man in a mud-built home]
I really don’t know what to make of these Olympic Games. It remains to be seen until August 2008. I feel very uncertain, as though I’m wandering in the dark and don’t know where it’s safe to step. I don’t trust the Chinese at all. Not one bit.
[Young man in open field in front of industrial building]
I don’t want these Games. Prices have risen because of these Games. We poor people don’t even have enough money to buy food.
[Monk inside home]
The situation is very dangerous. Actually we would be happy about the Games but much is being misrepresented. China was awarded the Games on the condition that the situation in China and Tibet would improve. They made many promises to the whole world to grant more freedoms, democracy and other basic rights. They were only awarded the Games because they made these promises. However, after they were awarded the Games, there has been no greater freedom or democracy, and repression is getting stronger and stronger.
[Filmmaker on train]
The Chinese are saying that they have made so many improvements in Tibet. But we don’t see any improvement at all. [Filmmaker sitting in chair in front of white wall] Tibetans are forcibly relocated. Nomads are not allowed to graze their cattle in the pastures. Are such tight controls an improvement? No! Under the pretext of setting up civilised cities, many Tibetans are forced to relocate. [Shot of landscape from moving train] Such buildings look nice from the outside, and outsiders may think that the Tibetans are treated very well and that they are happy. But the truth is that Tibetans are not free to speak of their suffering.
[Yak and sheep roaming on desert plateau. Man in black jacket speaking]
The Chinese say that if Tibetans live high up in the mountains it’s not convenient transport-wise, and makes life difficult and, for example, makes it hard for children to go to school. That’s the kind of thing they say. That’s what they say, but it’s really not right. The reason why they don’t say the truth is because our land is very valuable and rich in natural resources. Because they want these resources, they use nice words and cheat us, like you’d cheat children, to make us move.
[Man speaking against a sheet of paper that states “Tibetan”]
These days they are dividing the land with fences all over the land and valleys. The animals aren’t allowed to enter these areas for five to ten years, so have nowhere to graze. Instead, they pay out compensation to the farmers and nomads, and it’s considered illegal to refuse. The main aim is to gather the farmers in one place and fence them in. Fences are built and thorns are planted so that it’s not possible for farmers to grow anything.
[Farmer walking among cattle]
If they succeed, they’ll create an environment impossible for Tibetans to live in.
[Group of women in traditional clothing dancing]
NOMAD PEOPLE GATHER TO LEARN THEIR CULTURE
[Man speaking, face blurred]
The aim of our association is to preserve the Tibetan language and culture in our villages. We were so worried about losing our culture that we started this association. No matter how far or difficult the journey, we travel around and educate the illiterate, we teach the Tibetan alphabet and encounter all kinds of difficulties on the way. Our motorbikes break down on the way but we don’t let anything stop us. The main thing is that we work hard to educate ourselves.
[Filmmaker speaking with a young woman, face blurred, at the association]
– How old are you?
– I’m 20 years old
– You are so young and yet you have taken on all this responsibility and faced many obstacles. What motivates you?
– The main reason is for all Tibetans to become like one family. It’s important to educate illiterate people and teach Tibetans their own language.
– Do you think the teachers and classes are good?
– Yes, they are really good, that’s why the children are learning so well.
– Do any of your family members study here?
– Yes, I have three children and they all come here. Seeing as I don’t know how to read and write, I hope my children can learn those skills here. It’s because I want them to learn these skills that I am happy for them to come here. Even though I’m afraid to stay at home on my own, it’s worth it for their education.
[Class in session, schoolchildren repeating after teacher]
Must take responsibility for themselves
Must take responsibility for themselves
[Man speaking against open plateau background]
Our language is in danger. The reason for this is because Tibetans are a minority. For every Tibetan, there are ten to fifteen Chinese. The Chinese are everywhere in these Tibetan areas. Everywhere you look there are Chinese people, and you hear Chinese everywhere. Chinese words are used when speaking Tibetan, and Tibetan words are used when speaking Chinese. Tibetans are not a people without culture; we have a rich culture inherited from our ancestors.
[Filmmaker sitting in front of white wall]
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 has to be practiced in all Tibetan areas. If it’s not practiced, how can it be preserved? It can’t. The situation in Tibet, instead of improving, is getting worse and worse every year.
[Filmmaker walking out of house with rucksack, talking on phone, then walking on street]
One of the main difficulties we faced in making this film was coming face to face with the people, not being able to guarantee their safety and to gain their consent. [Chatting with monks on street] Some people were eager to work with us. Many said that if I succeeded in offering the film to His Holiness, then they wouldn’t regret it, even if they had to die.
[Sitting in front of white wall]
They were willing to be filmed. I also asked clearly about filming and explained that they didn’t have to show their faces. Some said that we absolutely had to show their faces, otherwise it wasn’t worth speaking to them.
[Old woman spinning large prayer wheels at monastery, then monk inside monastery speaks]
They say that there is freedom of religion. There is no freedom at all. The main reason is that the Dalai Lama is not here. He’s the most precious for all Tibetans. If he and the Panchen Lama were in Tibet, all beings would benefit. Never mind the Dalai Lama being allowed to return to Tibet, the local authorities and governors are being taken to China and are being told to publicly announce that they don’t wish for the Dalai Lama’s return. They are paid a lot of money in exchange. They have to guarantee their loyalty by signing a document with their fingerprints. They have to show how much they are against the Dalai Lama and this is the picture they want to paint to the world.
[Television showing the Dalai Lama receiving an award, with the filmmaker and a group of Tibetans watching. An old lady weeps, wiping her eyes. Everybody in the room repeatedly prostrates before the image on the TV, then an old man in the room speaks]
We are offering all our prayers to the Dalai Lama. We keep him in all our prayers. We may only be simple nomads but this is what we believe. [Old man weeping] For the Dalai Lama to come back is my greatest wish and dream, but it doesn’t look like this will be realised. Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama, I pray to you. I only have to hear his name and I am filled with faith, devotion and deep, deep sadness. The situation is hopeless. I feel exhausted. It’s as though I were walking alone, with no destination, endlessly.
[Lady sitting on floor with red sofa in the background, hands folded]
I’m 60 years old and the chance to meet [the Dalai Lama] just once before I die would be worth more to me than 100 horses and 1000 bulls.
[Weeping old lady in fur hat]
If the Dalai Lama were to return, I’d be so happy I’d be prepared to jump into the river and die.
[Middle-age man inside house]
Even if I had to sacrifice my life for this message to be seen by the Dalai Lama, I agree with and welcome this chance.
[Two women, one carrying a child in field]
We are just nomads who have never been to school. What we want to say is that we hope the Dalai Lama will come back to Tibet soon.
[Young man in front of simple white house]
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. [Opens closet to reveal a framed collage with photos of the Dalai Lama] A while ago, we were told that these kinds of photos were not allowed so we have to keep them secret. Otherwise they’ll be taken away.
[Shot of Potala Palace. People circling stupa, praying. Filmmaker sits in front of white wall]
It is important for Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet to think about getting Tibet back into our own hands. It can’t be achieved by just one man. All of us should unite and pool our efforts together. That’s very important. We are not asking for complete independence. The Middle Way approach, followed by His Holiness, is our main standpoint. When it comes down to it, it’s important to follow this path.
[Filmmaker making bed, washing face, reading newspaper]
MARCH 10, 2008. We are close to finishing our project. Our footage is ready to be taken to China, either tomorrow or the day after. [Sorting and packing footage] My aim for this film is not to make a famous or particularly entertaining film. 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.
[Filmmaker on train, singing]
Precious One [Dalai Lama]
You are the peace of the world
You are the pride of Tibetans
A few days after they had completed filming, Dhondup Wangchen and Golog Jigme were arrested. Tapes of all 108 interviews they conducted were sent to a safe place out of the country on 10 March 2008. On the same day, historic mass Tibetan protests started across the Tibetan plateau. On 6 August 2008, the eve of the Olympic Games, this film was successfully screened to foreign media in Beijing.
~ Wangpo Tethong, now based in Switzerland, is co-producer of Leaving Fear Behind.