"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


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Film bares Tibetan's 33 years in cell, torture

Kyodo News

NEW YORK (Kyodo) Tokyo native Makoto Sasa has recently debuted her documentary, "Fire Under the Snow," the story of Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso, who was imprisoned and tortured in China for 33 years, at the Tribeca Film Festival.

"Fire Under the Snow," which took three years to complete and was shown at the film festival in New York on April 24, is at once both a personal testament of one man's resiliency in the face of brutality and a jarring revelation of over 50 years of unaddressed injustice and abuse.

In her directorial debut, the Buddhist filmmaker said she is surprised by her movie's timeliness:

"We didn't expect that this would happen," she said in an interview, referring to the Chinese government's crackdown on recent protests in Tibet.

"But now it's happening and it's very important that thousands of people are going to have the same experience as he experienced and this message would spread and some people would do something about the cause," she said.

Inspired in her early teens by the image of a prostrating Tibetan monk on a pilgrimage to Lhasa, the 34-year-old Keio University graduate came to the United States hoping to change the world.

When she had the opportunity to meet the monk whose autobiography, "Fire Under the Snow: True Story of a Tibetan Monk," helped her through difficult periods, she leaped at the chance to film Gyatso's extraordinary story of survival.

Gyatso escaped to Dharamsala, India, after 33 years as a prisoner in China. After enduring three decades of torture, watching his friends and family die from abuse and starvation, and even losing all his teeth from an electric cattle prod shoved down his throat, the monk now devotes his life to advocating for Tibet's freedom. Humble in dress and manner, he would not strike most as the activist type.

But get him talking about the Tibetan cause and he comes alive through a combination of words, sweeping hand gestures and eyes that communicate with unwavering lucidity the moral rightness of his struggle.

In an interview, Gyatso expressed outrage at China's hosting the 2008 Olympics. "The Olympics is for human rights, peace," Gyatso, 77, said. "If there is no human rights, then China does not deserve to host the Olympics."

The monk has become a global symbol of perseverance for the Tibetan struggle.

During the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, Gyatso attracted worldwide media attention when International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge asked the monk to end his indefinite hunger strike. The monk agreed with the expectation that the president would promise to pressure China to improve its human rights record in Tibet.

But as the movie shows, Rogge's promise went unfulfilled, with Rogge telling the monk his request fell outside the IOC's authority.

Despite setbacks, the quiet disciple of compassion and nonviolence continues to denounce China, confident in the power of truth and law.

"I do not have any ill will toward the Chinese people, because if I have any ill will toward somebody, it's not going to help me or my cause, and, moreover, it is the tenets of Buddhism . . . I absolutely believe violence will not achieve anything . . . only through truth and international law can we solve the Tibetan issue," Gyatso said.

The 75-minute documentary covers Palden Gyatso's life from age 28, when he was imprisoned and charged as a reactionary during the communist takeover. It ends with the demonstrations in Boston and New York City ignited by the Chinese Communist Party's harsh clampdown on recent protests in Tibet.

Although many have denounced China's actions, the emerging economic superpower has yet to respond with significant changes to its policy toward Tibet.

In response to worldwide protests, many Chinese students throughout the United States have led their own demonstrations in support of a united China, one that includes Tibet. When asked to comment on these demonstrations, the spirited monk deflected with ease doubts about his country's claim to sovereignty.

"I can remember when I was 11 or 13 years old, when Tibetan lamas would go to China to preach religion, and there was a representative that would come to Tibet, stationed in Lhasa. . . . At that time there was no tension at all, it was a harmonious relationship. The two nations existed as two independent nations," Gyatso recalled of a time before the Chinese Communist Party took control in 1949.

The monk said resolutely that China's interests in Tibet are mainly economic. "Chinese know that Tibet is rich in natural resources, which is why they wanted to have complete control over Tibet. That is one reason why China has become so powerful today," he said, referring to mineral oil and uranium, which is enriched for use in producing nuclear energy.

Despite protests and ongoing violence against his countrymen, Gyatso is optimistic. "We have been very moderate in our approach toward our cause and we have been very peaceful and endured many hardships. I think there will be a time when the international community will wake up to the Tibetans' sufferings."

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