Leaving Fear BehindLucy Walton // 19 February 2014
Dhondup Wangchen, still from Leaving Fear Behind (2008).
Leaving Fear Behind was filmed in the months preceding the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with the aim of voicing the opinions of Tibetan people living in Chinese-occupied Tibet about the upcoming games and rule by the Chinese Government. Shortly after filming was completed, the film’s director Dhondup Wangchen and his assistant Jigme Gyatso were arrested by the Chinese authorities for ‘inciting separatism’. Wangchen is currently serving a six-year prison sentence and is due for release this year, Gyatso was released in May 2009. Both have reported the use of torture by the Chinese authorities, and Wangchen has contracted Hepatitis B in prison, for which he has been denied treatment. The footage was safely smuggled out of China, and the film has subsequently been shown internationally. At the time of their arrests, uprisings started by monks in Lhasa swept across Tibet, in protest against the Chinese occupation. It is estimated that 140 people were killed.1 With international attention surrounding the Olympic games, protests spread worldwide in April 2008.
Neither Wangchen nor Gyatso had any professional training in filmmaking, and the documentary was shot using a cheap video camera. Wangchen explains that he did not intend to make a ‘famous or particularly entertaining film’; instead the film is about the ‘plight of the Tibetan people’. Since the Chinese invasion in 1950, the Chinese Government has killed roughly one million Tibetans.2 The Tibetan people have little freedom of expression, religion or movement; it is forbidden to be in possession of a Tibetan flag or a picture of the Dalai Lama, send an email abroad or even utter the phrase ‘human rights’.3 Any action deemed to be ‘splittist’ is punished with imprisonment, and the use of torture is widespread. At least 125 Tibetans are known to have self-immolated in protest against their treatment under rule by the Chinese Government.4 This is now a criminal act in China, punishable by the death penalty.
What is remarkable about Leaving Fear Behind is that so many of the interviewees agreed to show their faces. By doing this, they risked arrest for expressing views criticising the Chinese Government, but they were so determined to have their story heard that they were willing to take this risk. The scene depicting people watching video footage of the Dalai Lama would have been a particularly risky event. The emotion on the faces shown highlights their devotion to the spiritual leader and the importance of their religion, the practice of which is now strictly controlled. In many parts of Tibet, Tibetans are now outnumbered by ethnic Chinese immigrants.5 This, together with the fact that Tibetan language is no longer taught in schools, has made many Tibetans worry that their culture is being lost. The film shows a group that has been set up in order to combat this situation by teaching Tibetan children about their customs and language. We are told that one of the main reasons for this group is ‘for all Tibetans to become like one family’. Many Tibetans feel that unity of their community will be key to overcoming the oppression they face, but this has become difficult due to the way that Tibet has been divided up and mixed with Chinese provinces, in which Tibetans are minorities with little political power and it is almost impossible for them to retain their identity.
Dhondup Wangchen, still from Leaving Fear Behind (2008).
Leaving Fear Behind demonstrates a general feeling of outrage at the injustice of the situations of Tibetans living in Tibet. Beijing was allowed to host the 2008 Olympics games on the condition that the situation in Tibet would improve, but the people interviewed feel that this has not been the case. One man is frustrated that ‘Tibetans are not allowed to attend [the games]’: by this he means that they are not allowed to attend as Tibetans, that is to say that they are not recognised as a separate group to the Chinese people. They explain how prices have risen because of the games, so that many people are struggling to afford to buy food. Many of the people interviewed describe their experience of the dishonesty of the Chinese Government: they have been told that they cannot live high up in the mountains because this makes transportation inconvenient, but really they are being driven off their land because it is rich in valuable natural resources.
The general attitude towards the Olympic games presented in the film is summed up well by Jigme Gyatso, the first person to be interviewed in the film: ‘If the 2008 Olympic games take place, then they should stand for freedom and peace. As a Tibetan, I have neither freedom nor peace; therefore I don’t want these games’.
King’s College London Students for a Free Tibet society (facebook.com/kclstudentsforafreetibet) will be screening Leaving Fear Behind on the 25th February at 6.30pm in room G.73, Franklin Wilkins Building, KCL Waterloo Campus, SE1 8WA. The screening will be followed by a question and answer session with Dechen Pemba, who helped smuggle the footage out of Tibet. The event is open to all.
Lucy Walton is studying Physics and Philosophy at King’s College London, and is a co-founder of KCL Students for a Free Tibet society.
1 CNN Wire Staff, ‘Timeline of Tibetan protests in China’, CNN (Published 31/1/12, Accessed 11/2/14, edition.cnn.com/2012/01/31/world/asia/tibet-protests-timeline).
2 ‘Facts about Tibet’, Free Tibet (Published n.d., Accessed 11/2/14, freetibet.org/about/facts-about-tibet).
4 ‘List of self-immolation protests in Tibet’, Free Tibet (Published n.d., Accessed 11/2/14, freetibet.org/news-media/na/full-list-self-immolations-tibet).
5 ‘Facts about Tibet’, op. cit.
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