A little controversy is generally a good thing — it draws eyeballs. But this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), held between January 5 and 18 in the Californian town bordering the desert, had a little too much of it. First there was Mariah Carey slurring her way through her speech on opening night.
That was funny; but what happened over the next few days wasn’t. The Chinese government decided to pull out two Chinese films, City of Life and Death and Quick, Quick, Slow, due to be shown at the festival. The reason? The PSIFF had declined its request that the festival drop The Sun Behind the Clouds, an 80-minute documentary by Indian filmmakers Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin that follows the Dalai Lama and traces the violence in Tibet and elsewhere in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
However, Darryl Macdonald, director of PSIFF, did not give in to the arm-twisting. “We have freedom of expression in this country,” the New York Times quoted him telling the Chinese, “and we would not allow any foreign country to dictate what films we should or should not play”.
And so The Sun Behind the Clouds was screened — very successfully, point out Sarin and Sonam, back in the one-room office of their production house, White Crane Films, tucked away in a corner of south Delhi.
“There was so much demand that we had three completely booked out screenings,” says Sarin, “and a fourth one after the film won the audience award for ‘Best of the Fest’. Many in the audience stayed behind for the interactive session. Tibet is large in the mindscape of the West, but they do not know the entire complex story. They’d heard a bit about the Dalai Lama, the Chinese repression, but they didn’t know what it means to be an exile, or the complex issues stirring the community today. They sat there for a really long time asking in-depth questions and afterwards followed us out, continuing to ask.”
The audience at the PSIFF couldn’t have asked for two people better equipped to satisfy their curiosity. Sarin and Sonam have made as many as 13 documentaries on the region since 1991. In 2005, their much-acclaimed feature Dreaming Lhasa, had a limited commercial release at theatres in India, the US and Europe.
“We’ve been making films about the Dalai Lama for the past 20 years,” says Sarin. The couple have taken their cameras and crew into monasteries all over India and Nepal, filming the monks at work and play, and often enough for their subjects to become unselfconscious. “They don’t mind us, we’re like family,” Sarin emphasises. Such access, combined with the perspective that long association brings, gives their films a human insight into the intractable Tibetan issue, using culture, lore and religion to bring alive the tragedy of six million people whose very identity and way of life are under threat.
One of their early films, The Trials of Telo Rinpoche, was about a 21-year-old American struggling to come to terms with his destiny after the Dalai Lama anoints him reincarnation of a high lama and charges him with reviving Buddhism in Kalmykia, a remote area in southern Russia. In 1999, they made Big Treasure Chest for Future Kids — Tibet, a whimsical tale of a magnificent treasure chest that appears in a Tibetan Children’s Village (centres for children orphaned or separated from their families during their escape from Tibet).
It also helps that Sonam is a first-generation Tibetan refugee, the son of Lhamo Tsering who came to India after the Chinese occupation and rose to become minister in the exile government before his death in 1999. Tsering was also a key figure in “ST Circus”, a covert CIA operation in Tibet to supply arms and strategic inputs to a ragtag group of Tibetan resistance fighters who had waged an armed struggle against the Chinese in the 50s and 60s. It’s a chapter in the history of the Tibetan resistance that few know about today (given how the Dalai Lama’s pacifist discourse has come to dominate the debate) and Sarin and Sonam made a documentary on the subject in 1998, The Shadow Circus —The CIA in Tibet, commissioned by the BBC.
Despite all that, it hasn’t been an easy journey for the husband-wife duo who met as undergraduate students in Delhi in the 70s, and later again when they were both studying filmmaking in the San Francisco Bay Area — Sarin at the California College of the Arts, and Sonam at the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism — and spending their spare time “actively watching films, sometimes five-six a week” and setting up Tibetan support groups.
It never is easy for independent filmmakers, even those with such high-profile supporters as Richard Gere and Francesca von Habsburg, a prominent figure in the European art world (both have been executive producers on White Crane’s projects).
Even Dreaming Lhasa, their most high profile film, “did not make any money at all,” rues Sonam. Made on a budget of around Rs 2 crore, the film grossed just Rs 15 lakh at the US box office. But perhaps box office grosses are not a measure of the success of independent documentaries. Sarin and Sonam are now working on their next feature film — “a spiritual Zen road movie set in the high Himalayas”. Have they considered going mainstream? Sarin doesn’t rule it out. “In Mumbai there is today this new ethos of corporate financiers and people working to scripts. Maybe we need to look at reaching a larger audience in India,” she says.
The Sun Behind the Clouds has bagged a two week slot at the Film Forum, New York’s leading movie hall for independent cinema at the end of March. Ironically, this slot had been reserved for City of Life and Death, the Chinese film withdrawn from the PSIFF.
The Sun behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom will be screened at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai on March 7, and at the India International Centre, Delhi on March 12