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"The Sun Behind The Clouds: Tibet's Struggle For Freedom" Interview with Directors: Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam

“The Sun Behind The Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom”

Opens March 31st, 2010 at “Film Forum”



Recently, at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, held this past January 5-18, 2010, screenings of Chinese features, “City ofLife and Death” and “Quick, Quick, Slow”, were taken out of the film festival by the state-run China Film Group in order to protest the festival’s choice to show the “The Sun Behind The Clouds”, which takes on  a unique Tibetan perspective on the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people’s oppression under the Chinese regime.


Tibetan filmmaker Tenzing Sonam and his partner, Ritu Sarin, took time to answer a few questions about their controversial film, “The SunBehind The Clouds”.


 A brief history of Tibet from 1949 to today:


China claims Tibet has been under its rule since at least the 13th Century, while the Tibetans believe it has always existed as an independent nation.



1949:  The Chinese Communist Government, led by Mao Zedong, asserted a new Chinese presence in Tibet and invaded Tibet.


1950: The People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet defeating the Tibetan army.


1951:  Chinese troops forced Tibetan representatives in Lhasa, to negotiate with the Chinese government: resulting in China’s sovereignty over Tibet.


1951-1959, traditional Tibetan society with it’s lords and manorial estates continued to function unchanged.  The Dalai Lama’s government was permitted to maintain important symbols from its independence period.


1959:  China took control of Tibet, and a military crackdown on rebels led to the “Lhasa Uprising”.   Fearing capture of the Dalai Lama, unarmed Tibetans surrounded his residence, and the Dalai Lama fled to Northern India. There was growing resistance against the Chinese occupation and 100,000 Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama to India.


1965: The area that had been under the control of the Dalai Lama’s government from the 1910’s to 1959,  was renamed the Tibet Autonomous Region, or TAR.  The role of ethnic Tibetans in the higher levels of the TAR Communist Party remains very limited.


1959-1961: Red Guards inflicted a campaign of organized vandalism against cultural sites, including Tibet’s Buddhist heritage. Thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns were killed, or imprisoned.


1989: Dalai Lama, spiritual and religious leader of the Tibetan government in exile, won the Nobel Peace Prize, for his commitment to peaceful protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet.


March, 2008: Widespread protests against Chinese rule flared up in 2008. The largest uprising since China took control in 1959. The Chinese government imposed curfews. Tibetans are unhappy under Chinese regime. Talks between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government began with little result.  Thousands of Tibetans in exile, march thousands of kilometers from Dharmsala, India, to Tibet in order to support their countrymen.  It is also the year The Olympic Games were held in Beijing.


The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual and temporal leader, who has lived in exile for most of his life, trying to compromise with China, and find a “Middle Way Approach”, is willing for Tibet to remain in the Chinese People’s Republic, as long as the Tibetan Culture, Religious beliefs and it’s environment are preserved.  A compromise has yet to be made, and the goal of returning to a free Tibet seems as distant as ever.


Question: Sharon Abella: 


 What is life currently like for Tibetans on a daily basis?


Answer:  Tenzing Sonam:


 “Right now the situation in Tibet is pretty bad. In the big cities like,  Lhasa,Tibet,  and most of the urban areas, there is a huge security presence. Armed guards are at every street crossing in Lhasa.  The Chinese have always had a very tough security policy.  There is a tough surveillance system looking for spies.  It is because of this, that Tibetans are very afraid to speak out, so people just go about their daily business. The Tibetans are under a lot of pressure right now.



Question: SA:


What would life be like for Tibetans if the Dalai Lama were to return to Tibet?


Answer:  Tenzing Sonam:


“It’s a tough question, because it would depend on what circumstances he would have been invited back to Tibet.  Of course, his presence in Tibet would spark an incredible show of devotion and support for the Dalai Lama, but who knows  how this would manifest.  It could spark a revolution."


 Question: SA


In the film, the Chinese Foreign Ministry had accused the Dalai Lama of being a liar who wants a serf system, which offers no democracy.  Where do these accusations stem from?


Answer:  Tenzing Sonam:


“Before the Chinese Invasion in 1950, Tibet was a feudal kind of a society, it was very medieval, and wasn’t developed at all.  Like all systems that were kind of backwards, it had a lot of problems, but these weren’t  problems that were any greater than what other countries have gone through, including China itself.  China, itself, had a lot of social inequalities, but what the Chinese have always done, is justify their actions. Because they invaded Tibet and illegally occupied it, they needed justification.  Their justification was that Tibet was a horrible, horrendous, backwards society, and we brought liberation to them, and that is the classic, kind of colonial justification used throughout the ages that the people you conquer some how need you.  So that’s why the Chinese keep on insisting that all of Tibet was so horrific, because they need to somehow legitimize their rule in Tibet. The truth is, Tibet, certainly, was not a paradise on Earth, it wasn’t this Buddhist paradise. It had a lot of social problems, but like every other country, it probably would have developed in it’s own time.


Question: SA


Quote from the film: “Tibet is enormously important due to its strategic location. China wants to exploit Tibet for it’s natural resources.”


Is this the main reason why China won’t give up Tibet?


Answer: Tenzing Sonam:


Absolutely. It is one of the huge reasons why China will not willingly give up Tibet.


Answer: Ritu Sarin:


Also, they have a sense that Tibet is part of their empire.  So, apart from just the resources, they have a sense that Tibet belongs to them.  They really, really believe in this, and it’s hard for them to give that up.



SA:  The film mentions that they are building railway transportation from mainland China to Tibet.


Answer: Ritu Sarin:


“You can not miss the Chinese presence in Tibet.  Anyone who goes to Tibet, when they leave it, they realize they are suddenly leaving a place that has so much fear and oppression.  Anyone who is slightly aware of it.”


Answer: Tenzing Sonam:


“But because right now if you went to Tibet as a tourist you would go on a controlled tour, so you would not have the freedom to meet whoever you wanted to meet, speak to whomever you wanted to speak to.  The Chinese Government would make sure you would see what they wanted you to see.


SA:  Talk about Woeser.


Woeser is a female poet/writer in the film, who was dismissed from her position as an editor of a literary journal because she wrote sympathetic writings about the Dalai Lama. She now lives in Beijing, and despite intimidation, continues to expose the reality of the situation in Tibet. Woeser is a the most famous Tibetan intellectual voice writing out of China.  She blogs relentlessly and critically on China’s rule in Tibet and the situation there. Tibetans everywhere take inspiration from her courage and writings and she is widely recognized as one of the most influential Tibetan voices today.


Answer: Tening Sonam:


Woeser has already had run-in’s with the authorities, she can’t go to Lhasa, so she has been exiled to Beijing, yet she has consistently writing blogs criticizing the Chinese government’s policies in Tibet, and for whatever reason, the Chinese haven’t been able to shut her down. For Tibetans all over the world she is a real symbol of resistance and courage and we take alot of inspiration from her.


The English translation for her blogs are on:


Answer: Ritu Sarin

The interesting thing about her also is that Woeser is part Chinese, and so when she was growing up in Chengdu

(Chengdu: located in southwestPeople’s Republic of China, is the capital of Sichuan province and asub-provincial city, Chengdu is also one of the most important economic centers, transportation and communication hubs in Western China.)

 So when Woeser was growing up in Chengdu, she didn’t realizethat she was Tibetan. Well, she knew she was Tibetan, but she was cut off fromher Tibetan roots.

She had no idea until she had read a book that was translated from English to Chinese, and then when she read the book, which talked about how China had invaded Tibet and what had happened to the people, that’s when she had asked her family if it was true, and she slowly began to rediscover her identity.  It is a very interesting story.



SA:  How do you think the world would be if the Dalai Lama’s wish were granted and the world lived as one nation?  The Dalai Lama stated, “Almost no single nation can be completely self sufficient, we need to work together”.  The Dalai Lama looks at economics with a spiritual and rational sense.



Answer:  Ritu Sarin


It could be a wonderful thing.  We’re idealistic people.  We believe in a utopian society. I think it would be wonderful if the world could do that, if we stopped all of our wars in Iraq, and Afghanistan and all of the problems. But, yet the reality is that it is so hard to imagine, even in America, it’s hard to imagine stopping the war. The reality is at this point in time, the Tibetans are dealing with a nation that is a big bully.  

For example at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Chinese aren’t even bullying people in their own country, they are actually going to organizations in America, in particular, the Palm Springs International Film Festival and trying to bully them.

Luckily, Palm Springs Film Festival stood strong and stood by their ideals and kept our film in competition, and was voted “Best of the Fest”,  but we fear that other filmfestivals won’t touch the film if they have a lot of Chinese films being displayed in the festival also. Does this Chinese behavior work to their advantage, or does it backfire against them?

Tenzing Sonam:


Basically what the Chinese did at “The Palm Springs International Film Festival” in January 2010, was pull out their two films, to protest our movie.  Luckily the festival refused to take our movie out. The way the Chinese Film Group put it was that the directors of these two movies,  “City of Life and Death”, and “Quick, Quick Slow”, had voluntarily pulled their film out in protest.  Later when the directors were interviewed, they actually had no idea that this was going on.  It was obvious that they were forced to remove their films from The Palm Springs International Film Festival.They had no choice."


Ritu Sarin:


"One of the movies that was pulled out of “The Palm Springs International Film Festival”, “City of Life and Death”, was the same movie that was supposed to play here at “The Film Forum”for a two week run, and at the last minute, their distributor,  “National Geographic” couldn’t guarantee them the print. Film Forum was suddenly left without a film.  We had sent our film to them, they loved it, and they will put our film in it’s place.  So now we are able to show our film at “The Film Forum”.


Tenzing Sonam:


The Chinese Film Group are trying to send a message to filmfestivals all around the world, that if you show films that we don’t like, than you will not get to play our films.


SA: How is that helping them?


Tenzing Sonam:


It is helping them in the sense that if Festivals do buckle under that kind of pressure, than they are getting their way.


Ritu Sarin:


They want it so that films about Tibet won’t get shown.


Tenzing Sonam:

Chinese films are so amazing,  so many good Chinese films being made. 


Ritu Sarin: 


People who have been in the business a long time have told us that it could happen, that some film festivals may reject our film because the film festivals don’t want controversy. But we don’t have any proof. No one is ever going to say the real reason.



SA: Discuss the lack of Western support for Tibet.  At one point in the film the Chinese got upset because they saw the Dalai Lama talking with Prince Charles and thought he was plotting with Westerners to aide in freeing Tibet.


Tenzing Sonam:


There are a lot of American supporters for the Tibetan cause at the grassroots level, but it doesn’t translate into government pressure.  Finally, it’s because China is so powerful, economically, everyone is doing deals with them. Nobody wants to upset them too much. That’s the big problem.  We are faced with a very powerful nation.


SA: The Dalai Lama said he doesn’t mind if Tibet stays partof the “People’s Republic of China”, as long as they preserve the Tibetan culture, the Buddhist beliefs and the environment.


Tenzing Sonam:


It is definitely happening.   The Chinese Government is controlling the practice of Buddhism,  Normally, you are allowed to go to temple and worship, but you can not have a picture of the Dalai Lama, you would be arrested if you had a picture of the Dalai Lama.  They have these things called Patriotic Education Campaigns,  were monks are forced to sign these letters stating that they denounce the Dalai Lama.


Entry into the monasteries are strictly controlled, they have to pass Chinese regulations. They try to make sure that not too many people join the monasteries, because they see the monasteries as a big threat to them.   So in very subtle ways, and actually not so subtle ways, they really controlling the practice of Buddhism."



Ritu Sarin:


“The Sun Behind The Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle For Freedom”, is a film coming from the perspective of the Tibetan people.   How is “The Sun Behind TheClouds” different from any other Tibetan film?   It is because we understand, we are moved by the Tibetan people.  We sympathize with the Tibetan people.  In fact when we won the Vaclav Havel award, (President of Czechoslovakia), that’s what President Havel said, he knew about the present situation and the Dalai Lama, but that this was the first time he felt the heart of the Tibetan people.


SA: Touch on the March in 2008 from Dharmsala, India to Tibet, the same year that the Beijing Olympics were being held, trying to send a message to the Chinese government. The Dalai Lama asked the marchers to stop thinking it was too dangerous for them.


Tenzing Sonam:


"At the end of the March in 2008, there were about 300 people.  They would walk about 20-25 kilometers a day and they would camp out at night for four months.  They had a food truck that would follow them.  A lot of the time it was very hot.  By the time the march ended, the media attention had turned to other things, and they were pretty much forgotten. There was hardly any media coverage at the end.  Everyone covered the beginning of the march, and as the months went by, the media started to cover other things.  For the Tibetans it was heartbreaking when they stopped."


SA: Touch on how you were able to work so closely along sideof the Dalai Lama.


We were asked to film the Dalai Lama on his 1986 trip to Europe. When he won theNobel Peace Prize in 1989, we were documenting that trip and his visit to Washington. We have spent a lot of time traveling with him.




“Dalai Lama is a symbol of Tibet. Compassion, hopes, aspirations, of all Tibetans  rest on him.  The Tibetans want independence, they want human rights. Buddha’s teaching can not flourish. China is trying to control Buddhist practice.”


“By confronting the injustice, you can awaken the people and expose Chinese brutality”.


“If his holiness, could leave Tibet with a legacy ofindependence.”  


“Tibetans want human rights. They want the Dalai Lama back. We stand and are pushed back down.”


Dalai Lama: “China is powerful, but lacks self confidence.Tibet is very small, but has self confidence."






“The Sun Behind The Cloud: Tibet’s Struggle For Freedom”


Opens March 31st at “The Film Forum”  209 West Houston Street







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