By Dechen Pemba. Dechen, a UK born Tibetan, is spokesperson for Filming for Tibet, a non-profit organization supporting Tibetan filmmakers, and has been closely involved with “Leaving Fear Behind” since 2007. She is also is the editor of the website High Peaks Pure Earth that monitors the Tibetan blogosphere and translates Tibetan blogs into English.
Leaving Fear Behind
By focusing on Tibetan filmmakers and films, the 3rd annual Tibet Film Festival (going on this weekend in Switzerland and India) highlights and celebrates Tibetan resistance and creativity through the medium of film. It is only appropriate then that the festival is dedicated to imprisoned amateur filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen, whose 2008 film Leaving Fear Behind was groundbreaking in terms of providing an outlet in which Tibetans could express themselves openly and speak out in their own voices without mediation. It was for making this film that Dhondup Wangchen was sentenced to six years in prison.
Leaving Fear Behind consists of Dhondup Wangchen talking directly to the camera cut alongside excerpts of interviews with ordinary Tibetans he and his helper, monk Golog Jigme, conducted on certain topics related to Tibet and their lives. Despite the film’s post-production being done in Switzerland, this simple format allowed for the most direct way that Tibetans could speak out about issues close to their hearts, with Dhondup Wangchen and Golog Jigme acting as citizen journalists. Since 2008, video activism from Tibet has come both in the form of direct to camera testimonies, either uploaded onto the internet or distributed on DVDs, as well as edited and produced films, usually made available on DVDs, and distributed underground.
Struggling to Bear Witness
Video activism inside Tibet is risky and dangerous and considered by the Chinese government to be subversive. The official reason for Dhondup Wangchen’s six year prison sentence was cited to be “subversion of state power.” It is not enough for Tibetans to simply possess a video camera or phone and point and shoot, successful instances of video activism where the messages reach the target audience either inside or outside Tibet need careful planning and can involve a network of supporters. Alongside safety concerns, a documentary that can make an impact requires more than statements, there has to be some technical knowledge, a measure of financial investment, a narrative framework and an understanding of the target audience.
On September 3, 2008, Voice of America’s Tibetan service broadcast monk Lama Jigme’s testimony about his experiencesas a political prisoner since March of that year. Lama Jigme talks for 20 minutes direct to the camera and at one point says: “I said this to the face of my captors: if you kill me, then that will be the end of it. But if I am able to go outside and get the opportunity, I will talk about the torture I went through; I will tell the people of the world as a truthful witness, about the sufferings undergone by friends and report these to the media.” Lama Jigme’s compulsion to tell the world of the suffering of the Tibetan people, a motivation he shares with Dhondup Wangchen, also comes at a price, after the broadcast of the video testimony,Lama Jigme was re-arrested.
The Growth of Video Activism 2009-2010
More bold videos by Tibetans came to light in 2009. In July 2009, monk and intellectual from Amdo province, Eastern Tibet, Kalsang Tsultrim’s video testimony emerged, at first distributed underground amongst Tibetans in the provinces of Amdo and Kham on VCD. The 60-minute VCD was screened in Dharamsala in August and also uploaded onto the Internet. The aim of Kalsang Tsultrim’s testimony was both to educate Tibetans inside Tibet about the current situation as well to appeal to the outside world for help, in his testimony he calls on the UN and international communities to speak for Tibetans living in fear and constant repression. Kalsang Tsultrim was detained not long after the testimony was recorded.
On December 4, 2009, 11 Tibetans, mainly monks, were detained for the producing and distributing a VCD titled “Bloody Omen” which featured images of Chinese repression and Tibetans killed after March 2008. The VCD also contained songs expressing devotion to the Dalai Lama.
It was also in December 2009 that a stunning 1½-minute long video titled “I Am Tibetan” started to be passed around Tibetan social networking sites and later found its way to YouTube. The video is both powerful and creative as the camera focuses on random Tibetans with dramatic music in the background, each statement begins with “I am Tibetan” and the speaker goes on to describe the reason. The emphatic statement “I am Tibetan” is a powerful assertion of how the people identify themselves. In the statements there is no sense at all of being a “minority.” Watch it below:
Video activism has continued to grow in Tibet with the films being produced increasing in sophistication. A documentary called “Hope in a Disaster”about the devastating earthquake in Eastern Tibet in 2010, was released for the one-year commemoration. The film portrayed the grief felt by the people affected but also contained many reflections and was 2½ hours long, extending over 7 sections. Monks who had participated in the earthquake relief efforts produced the film and acted as citizen journalists, interviewing almost 50 other monks and lay people, including some survivors. The Chinese government quickly banned the DVD.
Tibetans Ensure They Will Be Seen and Heard
A final example of the importance of video was the harrowing footage of the self-immolation of the young monk Phuntsog in Ngaba, Amdo, on March 16, 2011, shot by an anonymous Tibetan citizen journalist using a mobile device. Although the footage of Phuntsog following his self-immolation did not reach the outside world until over a month after the incident, the video was still broadcast by the BBC and Radio Free Asia, amongst other media outlets, highlighting the continuing crackdown and tension in the Ngaba region of Tibet.
Aside from the political risks, as it becomes easier from a technology point of view to capture film and transmit in various forms, it stands to reason that Tibetan video activism will continue to grow and reach the outside world. The documentary Burma VJ showed how successful organized citizen journalism could be whilst much of the mainstream media covering the uprisings this year in the Arab world made use of videos taken on the ground using mobile phones.
Leaving Fear Behind was the start of Tibetans filming themselves and speaking in their own voices. Footage not included in the 25 minute version showed a Tibetan nomad being interviewed and comparing Tibetans in the PRC to “stars on a sunny day – we can’t be seen.” It is visual documentation such as this citizen journalism and video activism that ensures Tibetans will both be seen and heard, and in turn the plight of Tibetans not forgotten.