Canvassing a breadth of opinion from Tibet’s leaders in exile, Dirk Simon’s When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun traces the battle lines drawn and lost during the Beijing Olympics.
Death of A Nation by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Dirk Simon’s been here before, exploring a country divided by the Berlin Wall in his 2004 documentary Between The Lines. But this time it’s Tibet in the director’s sights, and the knotty problem of how best to free the autonomous region from China’s firm grip. Seven years in the making and pieced together out of archive footage and testimonies from leading Tibetans in exile, When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun is a uniquely rich compilation of interviews from the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Prime Minister, the Samdhong Rinpoche and the inheritor to the Tibetan throne. Galvanised by the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Tibetan freedom fighters are attempting to expose the truth and shame China while the world is watching, but caught between conflicting aspirations of a free or an autonomous Tibet, activists are no longer quite sure what it is they’re fighting for.
Loosely charting Tibet’s fate from 1949, when the red mists of Communist China descended on Tibet, through the 1959 Tibetan rebellion which pushed the Government into exile, and the ever tightening grips of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun reveals the passion behind the Tibetan call for freedom. As peaceful monks, committed to non-violence, resort in 1989 to throwing stones at the Chinese out of anger and desperation, as well as exposing the confusion following the Dalai Lama’s pragmatic change in policy, pleading with an increasingly hardline China for autonomy rather than freedom. In the run-up to the Olympics, activists in San Francisco lobby for a boycott of the Games with slogans of “Don’t go to Beijing, go home!” while in Tibet, demonstrators occupy the base of Mount Everest in protest against the ever-conquering route of the Olympic torch.
Beyond the peaceful tranquility evoked through wistful shots of Tibetan mountains, streams, pastures and monasteries, Dirk Simon’s When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun, with its dramatic swipes and computer-generated lightning bolts, suggests a reality that is anything but. Even though the Tibetans’ protest is peaceful and non-violent, resigned to China’s might, with an army boasting more soldiers than the six million strong population of Tibet, still one activist dreams nostalgically of a warrior tribe from Western Tibet who might one day be reborn to take on the Asian Goliath. But pragmatism wins the day. And it’s a losing battle – the Chinese easily able to crush any violence and the number of deaths rising through both Chinese brutality and the suicides of Tibetans who yearn for freedom but are unable to disobey the commandments of their god, who advocates a middle path.
With the total death toll standing at over half a million, Tibetans curse a lack of leadership from the Dalai Lama – although his statements urging the Tibetan people to take their country’s fate into their own hands doesn’t exactly prohibit violence. After all, how can a god incite violence? And while some are engaged in fantasies of resistance – with dreams of attacking the power supplies and telephone cables that connect Chinese businesses into the market economy, most, like the latest incarnation of the Tibetan Dharma King, live in peaceful exile, steeped in books. Like the living relics of François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 they safeguard Tibet against the cultural genocide taking place but have grown too comfortable to put up much of a fight.
For Tibetans, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it is suggested, are on a par with the 1936 Berlin Games, its extravagant fireworks a show of Han supremacy, swallowing dissident difference and foreshadowing a Tibetan holocaust. But as more Chinese emigrate to the Tibetan plateau and more natural resources and minerals flood out of the autonomous region, it seems more like a very modern landgrab – colonisation through occupation. But beyond the folklore bred from ignorance and propaganda, such as the baffling rumour that the Dalai Lama uses skulls for candle holders, the Chinese argue that ordinary Tibetans have been liberated, celebrating fifty years of serf emancipation in 2009. And no longer sure of their goal – autonomy or independence – the Tibetan freedom movement has lost much of its global support, suffering from internal infighting with protesters in India unable to barricade the Olympic torch, short in numbers due to a parallel, rival demonstration elsewhere in Delhi.
Unlike poetic visions of Tibetan history, religion and culture in Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy and Kundun or the in-house squabbling of Seven Years In Tibet, Dirk Simon’s When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun is designed to reveal the truth about Tibetan resistance against the Chinese, and is unapologetically political. There’s a celebrity gloss provided by Richard Gere and a soundtrack scored by Damien Rice and Thom Yorke, but the documentary’s lack of structure, while representing a broad spectrum of opinion, is unable to provide the much needed clarion call to arms. Instead, and with a certain reluctant despondency, we’re left to side with the Dalai Lama and remain hopeful that while the future looks just as bleak for Tibetans now as it did for George Washington and his revolutionaries, power is only temporary. And maybe one day the Dragon will be slayed.
When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun is released on 16th August 2013