J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Tibetan Night at Two Boots

NBC has been dubbed “Nothing But Communism” for the fawning coverage of the Chinese government seen during its Olympic broadcasts, so a documentary reminding the world that there is in fact a place called Tibet, which happens to be occupied by China, would seem timely indeed. Screening Saturday night at Two Boots’ Pioneer Theater, the documentary Dancing at Amdo (trailer here) attempts to examine the Tibetan occupation dispassionately from all sides, but in doing so, it leaves many obvious questions unasked.

Amdo starts with historical context, but seems to accept the proposition that pre-Communist Tibet was a feudal society. A local CP official’s assertion to that effect is essentially accepted at face value, which becomes a pattern throughout the film. Evidently there is an ongoing scholarly debate regarding the nature and extent of Tibetan serfdom, and the only academic involved in the film, Dr. Melvyn Goldstein, holds to the position of extreme serfdom. What sounds like a solely academic controversy has greater significance, since Tibet’s presumed history of serfdom has been used to justify the Chinese occupation.

The filmmakers do contend that the Tibetan government in exile is certainly more progressive than whatever may have preceded it, giving them credit for the democratic election of their prime minister. Also, there is no attempt to whitewash the crimes committed during the Cultural Revolution against Tibetan culture. According to the Venerable Amchok Rinpoche, the director of the government in exile’s archives, of the estimated six thousand monasteries existing in Tibet before the Gang of Four’s ascension, “at least 70 percent, seven zero, 70 percent are totally gone.”

In general though, Amdo seems all too willing to let the words of the current Chinese government pass unchallenged. After showing some vintage Cold War cartoons to mock American anti-Communist attitudes, we hear from Ye Xiaowen, the director general for the State Administration for Religious Affairs tell us: “Over the past few years, my office has done a lot of things to protect the Chinese people’s freedom of religious belief.”

That there is even such an agency for “Religious Affairs” is in itself chilling. Considering there are only five officially authorized religions in China and each is directly controlled by that agency, Ye’s statement is quite a jaw-dropper. Even if conditions have improved for Tibetan Buddhists, Chinese Christians would surely take issue with his assurances, and regardless how one feels about Falun Gong practitioners, there is little question they have been persecuted for their beliefs. Far from challenging Ye, we see stills of the filmmakers as Ye praises them, saying: “You are now looking at China through your camera and you are trying to see the truth.”

While at times informative, the greatest problem with Amdo is the lack of independent critical voices at such junctures. Yes, we do hear from the Dalai Lama and other members of the government in exile, like the venerable archivist, who seems to personify wisdom, and is allowed to rebut Ye’s claims late in the film. However, with their homeland occupied by the Chinese, there are very legitimate political and diplomatic reasons for them to be circumspect in their interviews.

The strongest scenes in Amdo document the attempts to keep Tibetan culture alive, through the institutions established by the Dalai Lama and the government in exile. Several officials talk about the distinctions between a living, dynamic art and that which is maintained on life-support in museum-style preservation programs. We also hear about traditional Tibetan productions rewritten by the Chinese to suit their propaganda purposes. Although the results are mixed, in general it seems legitimate contemporary Tibetan culture still remains quite vital.

With the Dalai Lama now accepting the possibility of Hong Kong style Communist rule in Tibet, the region might be reaching a turning point. The richness of Tibetan culture is nicely highlighted in Amdo, so its continued survival is a very real concern. However, the film should not be one’s primary source for historical and geo-political background on the conflict. It screens tomorrow night at Two Boots.

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