Tibetan exiles' tales on screen
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Michael Tsai
In the days when Tibet was still an independent nation, Tseten Phanucharas' father worked as a merchant.
In the early 1950s, as Chinese troops were engaging Tibetan guerrillas in Lhasa, he made several business trips to China where he saw, as Phanucharas says, "a preview of what might happen to Tibet."
"China was still in the process of being 'communized,'" said Phanucharas, one of three exile Tibetans featured in the documentary "Dreaming of Tibet," playing tonight and Sunday in the University of Hawai'i's Earth Magic cinema series. "My father was aware of the brainwashing and abuse and terror that came with that upheaval."
Afraid of the hardships his family might endure in a prolonged war between China and Tibet, Phanucharas' father took his wife and 10 children and fled to India in 1958.
"They thought we'd leave for a while and then come back," Phanucharas said of her parents. "They didn't think that we would lose our country."
The Dalai Lama would leave Tibet six months later, followed by an estimated 100,000 other Tibetans over the next year.
The Government of Tibet in Exile estimates there are more than 111,000 Tibetans living in exile, most in India and Nepal. Other organizations, including the international Students for a Free Tibet, place the figure at closer to 150,000, with roughly 11,000 living in the United States and Canada.
What is certain is that each winter, when passage across the mountainous border is easier and less guarded, hundreds, sometimes thousands of young Tibetans flood into refugee centers in Kathmandu seeking freedom and, perhaps, a chance to serve their homeland from the outside.
Producer John Antonelli and director Will Parrinello became acquainted with Tibetans living in Nepal while working on a documentary for the American Himalayan Foundation.
"John and I were both moved when we went to a refugee center and saw two dozen Tibetans who had escaped over the pass in cheap sneakers, thin pants and windbreakers," Parrinello said. "Many of them had frostbite and they were all dehydrated but they were very sweet and very humble."
It took four trips to Nepal and five years of stop-and-start fundraising to bring "Dreaming of Tibet" to the screen.
Parrinello calls the film a story of the resilience of the human spirit — in this case a collective spirit that exemplified the Buddhist ideal of universal love and compassion.
"They were forced from their home, yet they have an optimistic way of seeing the world and not laying blame on others," Parrinello said. "There are militant (factions) ... but in general it's their kindness, which comes from their Buddhist faith, that has enabled them to survive the difficulties and atrocities they've faced as a people."
In "Dreaming of Tibet," Antonelli and director Parrinello tell of a people dispossessed of their homeland, shown through three very different Tibetan exiles: Phanucharas, a hospital administrator and co-founder of the Los Angeles Friends of Tibet; Tsering Lhamo, a nurse who worked at a refugee relocation center in Kathmandu; and Ngawang Ugyen, who survived a Chinese "re-education" camp to became a monk in the foothills of the Himalayas.
The film provides a deeper look at the lives of Tibetan exiles than many Americans, accustomed to images of the Dalai Lama interacting with Hollywood celebrities, are used to seeing.
But Parrinello said extracting the deeply personal stories was no easy feat given the distaste he said Tibetans have for drawing attention to themselves at the expense of the larger community.
When Parrinello first approached Ngawang Ugyen about appearing in the film because repeated attempts to interview a distinguished lama had fallen through, the middle-aged monk was horrified.
"He ran away to his room, locked the door and shouted 'go away!' " Parrinello said, laughing.
Tsering Lhamo was almost as reluctant, but it is her story that sits at the heart of the film.
Lhamo's father was singled out by the communists because of a "minor" leadership position he held in their small town. They tied and beat him, then had his neighbors throw rocks and spit on him. He eventually died in prison, and Lhamo's mother died soon after.
Lhamo was left in the care of an aunt and uncle, who carried her on their backs as they fled Tibet for India.
After completing school in India, Lhamo made her way to Kathmandu to work at a relocation camp supported by the government in exile and the Red Cross. She worked 12- to 18-hour days helping tens of thousands of her fellow Tibetans make their way to a new life.
Parrinello and Antonelli had originally wanted to feature Tibetans who had just recently escaped over the border but, as Parrinello said, "it was too politically hot."
"In a lot of cases, they've left people behind who might be singled out," he said. "They also might not survive outside, and they could be in trouble if they went back. We needed to be hypervigilant about their safety."
In fact, Phanucharas said, the Chinese government has long sought to suppress international recognition and discussion about Tibet. (The Chinese consulate in Madrid, Spain, recently tried to keep "Dreaming of Tibet" from screening at a local cultural center.)
"There has been tremendous world support for Tibet," Phanucharas said. "Now whenever a Chinese official visits somewhere, no matter what country it is, there are Tibet supporters protesting."
It wasn't always that way, Phanucharas said, certainly not in 1964 when she first arrived in the United States to attend Marquette University.
"When I first came to Wisconsin, I sold encyclopedias," she said. "I met hundreds of people while I was doing that, and none of them knew where Tibet was. A lot of them had never even heard of Tibet."
Over the last 20 years, however, the popular rise of the Dalai Lama in the West and high-profile support from celebrities, from Richard Gere to the Beastie Boys, have made Tibet one of the most prominent social causes in the world.
"In a pragmatic sense, in America, celebrities are the ones we emulate and pay attention to," Phanucharas said.
"If a celebrity supports a cause, people will pay closer attention to it. When the Dalai Lama speaks somewhere, people will pay attention to the one or two celebrities who show up, not the other 30,000 who come, too."
What sometimes gets overlooked, Phanucharas said, "is that China invaded Tibet, that Tibet is an occupied country."
Phanucharas said she hopes "Dreaming of Tibet" will give people a deeper understanding of Tibet's political and social crisis.
"Every year, protesters will go protest in front of the Chinese consulate and if we get five seconds on the evening news, it would be an accomplishment," she said. "But if someone sits for an hour watching this film and comes away with a real understanding of the issues, that's a good thing."
Phanucharas is hopeful that the time is finally right for China to loosen its reigns on her native home — if not by granting outright independence, at least by allowing the sort of autonomy within the Chinese state that the Dalai Lama has recently advocated.
With the Olympics in Beijing approaching, there is some hope among exiled Tibetans that China may work to improve its international standing by resolving "the Tibet problem." And if that happens, Phanucharas, Lhamo and Ugyen and thousands of other Tibetans may finally be free to again see their homeland.
"Sometimes I feel discouraged, but I still hope that something will happen," Phanucharas said. "If we didn't have hope, then all would be lost."
Reach Michael Tsai at email@example.com.