As far as political injustices go, China's treatment of Tibet is a no-brainer. Since it "liberated" the country in 1950, the People's Republic has systematically destroyed a culture that was once the envy of the world. An estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have lost their lives to the Chinese occupation; meanwhile, millions of Han Chinese have moved in and taken over. Today, Tibetans aren't allowed to fly their flag. They aren't allowed to display pictures of the Dalai Lama. They aren't even allowed to say "I am a Tibetan" without risk of imprisonment or worse. Not for nothing have these peaceful people been called "the baby seals of the human rights movement."
As such, they've garnered a fair amount of attention in the West, thanks in part to such simpatico celebrities as Richard Gere and the Beastie Boys. Cinematically, there were those two recent attempts on the part of Hollywood to scale the heights of Tibetan history: Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun. And it seems as if there's always another documentary coming our way. To its credit, Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion serves as an excellent introduction to this fabled country and its troubled past. Those of you already up on Tibet will just have to settle for the pretty pictures.
Actually, the pictures range from quite pretty (the snow-covered Himalayas) to quite ugly (a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire), and they are rarely less than stunning. Director Tom Peosay made numerous trips to "the roof of the world" over a 10-year span, and he's brought back enough cinematic documentation to supply an entire PBS series, which is what the documentary sometimes seems like a compressed version of. We see clips from the 1950 invasion, the 1959 rebellion, the 1987 riots. We even see a clip of the young Dalai Lama's famous meeting with Chairman Mao, the one where Mao, in closing, told the 14th God-King that religion is poison.
The Dalai Lama left Tibet soon after that, never to return, but his role of goodwill ambassador won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. And he shows up here, still preaching a message of forgiveness. You have to wonder whether nonviolent resistance is going to get the job done this time, though. Peosay points out that détente between China and the United States hasn't exactly worked out in Tibet's favor. And he includes a damning shot of a Mobil sign just downhill from the Potala Palace. Between communism and capitalism, Tibetans don't stand a chance. And although Peosay makes a powerful case for a free Tibet, he seems clueless about how to bring it about.