"Heartfelt look at the resilience of the human spirit."
LA Times, Susan King
"Gyatso is engaging, charming, and riveting his story horrifying."
ABC News, Nancy Ramsey
"Powerful doc"
Time Out Magazine, Drew Toal

The Hollywood Reporter

Film Review: Fire Under the Snow

Bottom Line: A harrowing and inspiring personal account of political activism and persecution.

By Justin Lowe

DocuWeek, Los Angeles

Covering much of the history of modern Tibet from a dissident's personal perspective, Makoto Sasa's docu "Fire Under the Snow" relates the journey of Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso from brutal imprisonment in his homeland to freedom in exile. The film recently completed Academy Award-qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles. Despite such prestigious placement, the audience for a theatrical release would clearly be confined to major metropolitan specialty venues; a potentially larger viewership could await on broadcast outlets.

As related in his book, "The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk" -- which covers much of the same material as the film -- Gyatso, 77, was born in western Tibet in 1933 when the country was still independent and entered a monastery to become a monk at 18. A decade after China's invasion of Tibet, Gyatso was arrested and imprisoned in 1959 for independence-related activities. A failed escape attempt led to a doubling of his sentence, which was quickly followed by re-arrest and further prison time.

During his long years of incarceration, Gyatso affectingly relates how his captors repeatedly and brutally tortured him with beatings, psychological coercion and even electrocution. After 33 years in Chinese jails and labor camps, he finally slipped out of Tibet in 1992 to join the exile Tibetan community in India.

In the years since, Gyatso has relentlessly advocated for the rights of Tibetan political prisoners and championed autonomy. Footage of his 2006 hunger strike attempting to persuade the International Olympic Committee to refuse China the 2008 games is particularly disconcerting in the context of the recent competition.

Shooting in a straightforward reportorial style, Sasa sticks close to Gyatso for most of the running time, incorporating interviews with his acquaintances and other human rights activists alongside scenes of his daily life and advocacy activities. Aside from Gyatso's personal material, much of the archival footage is similar or identical to images that have appeared in news reports and other Tibet-related docus.

If not for Gyatso's traumatic personal experiences and passionate human rights advocacy, the film's literalism would likely overwhelm its relevance and timeliness. While "Fire Under the Snow" presents a passable primer on China's human rights abuses in Tibet by offering a unique point of view on the ordeals of Tibetan political prisoners, it breaks little new ground on the macro level.

Production company: Argot Pictures Director: Makoto Sasa.
Screenwriter: Aaron Mendez. Producers: Makoto Sasa, Jim Browne, Vladan Nikolic. Executive Producer: Maura Moynihan.
Directors of photography: Vladimir Subotic, Lincoln Maguire, Makoto Sasa. Editor: Milica Zec.

News & Press

“They seemed an unlikely pair — the Tibetan Buddhist monk who had spent 33 years in Chinese prisons and labor camps and the aspiring Japanese filmmaker.”

Daniel E. Slotnik , New York Times

"If you think you're lost, you're lost. If you think you're a winner, you're a winner."

…said Palden Gyatso, as he was trying to explain to us the secret to his inner strength.

Rachelle J. Hruska, Guest of a Guest

“Gyatso’s unwavering faith in the face of horrific circumstances would make for essential viewing.”

Sara Cardace, New York Magazine


“Powerful Doc”

Drew Toal,Time Out Magazine

“A harrowing and inspiring film.”

Justin Lowe, Hollywood Reporter

“Heartfelt look at the resilience of the human spirit.”

Susan King, LA Times

"Fascinating and frightening documentary.”

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com

“Taking Reverend Al’s mantra of ‘No Justice, No Peace’ to another level!”

Bevy Smith, Papermag

"Gyatso is engaging, charming, and riveting his story horrifying."

Nancy Ramsey , ABC NEWS


“Be warned: The opening ceremonies for the 2008 Olympics might look a little different if you see Makoto Sasa's disturbing documentary beforehand. “

Elizabeth Weitzman, Daily News

“Well-crafted docu...Makoto Sasa contrasts the horror of the story and the serenity of its teller for dramatic impact”

Ronnie Scheib, Variety