A screening of the documentary "The Sun Behind the Clouds" sparked a discussion on issues facing Tibetan independence in Griffith Theater Wednesday evening.
The documentary's directors—Tibetan filmmaker Tenzing Sonam and his partner, Ritu Sarin—led the discussion, which was hosted by the Duke East Asia Nexus. The film closely follows the plight of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet's highest spiritual leader, and the Tibetan people as they struggle for freedom under Chinese occupation.
Tibet lost its independence in 1959, when the Chinese government militarily occupied the Tibetan plateau—leading the Dalai Lama to escape to Dharamsala, India, where the current Tibetan government-in-exile is located. Tibetans living within the People’s Republic of China’s borders today are under strict surveillance from the Chinese government, unable to freely practice their religion, freely speak or own pictures of the Dalai Lama, the documentary shows.
Through the film, Sonam and Sarin conveyed that not all Tibetans in exile are homogenous in their views on how to resolve the issue and to what degree autonomy should be advocated for.
The 14th Dalai Lama calls for the Middle Way Approach, which compromises the two extremes—complete Tibetan independence from China and the present situation, in which Tibet is under China's complete control. The Middle Way Approach advocates for an agreement on the condition that Tibetans will live under the Chinese government, but will have greater autonomy and allow the return of the Dalai Lama to his homeland. The film highlighted that the Chinese government is afraid of the Middle Way compromise given that the Dalai Lama is such a powerful symbol of freedom. Allowing him back in Tibet may encourage the people to persist in achieving complete independence.
Sonam said the younger generations tend to advocate for complete independence, as shown through Free Tibet and Students for Free Tibet campaigns, while older generations tend to support the Middle Way Approach.
“It’s a Western narrative that all Tibetans are non-violent, that all Tibetans support the Middle Way,” said senior Tenzing Thabkhe, editor-in-chief of the Duke East Asia Nexus.
Sonam added that self-immolations—setting oneself on fire as a form of political protest against the occupation—are one of the most underreported news topics in Western media.
Since 2011, 133 self-immolations have taken place, associate professor of cultural anthropology Ralph Litzinger said during the discussion.
Litzinger added that it is difficult for Western media to fully report on the self-immolations. Reporters have limited access to information within Tibet as they cannot physically get to the sites of self-immolations or talk to the affected families.
Litzinger added that the numbers of Chinese and Tibetan Duke students have changed since he began teaching at Duke in 1994, creating more opportunities for diverse dialogue on the subject.
“Our college campus right now is in a sort of historical moment that we have not seen before,” he said. “When I came to Duke twenty years ago, there were hardly any students from Mainland China."
From 1994 to 2001, he said he would occasionally see undergraduate students from Mainland China, Taiwan and exiled Tibetan communities. In the last six to seven years, he has seen an increase in Tibetan students from China.
Litzinger emphasized the importance of engaging in dialogue as a community at Duke.
“There’s a tendency to want to fall back into our camp and not appreciate the fact that we don’t have to be like governments,” he said. “We can actually talk to each other. We can have disagreements, really strong agreements, and we don’t have to turn to violence and anger.”
Litzinger added that he was disappointed that there were not more Chinese students at the screening, referring to how some Chinese students had discouraged others from attending the screening on WeChat because doing so may be considered support for the Tibetan cause.
Thabkhe similarly expressed dissatisfaction with the turnout of the screening, noting that he would have liked to see attendance from more students who are not Asian.
The documentary has won a number of awards at film festivals, including at Palm Springs International Film Festival and Mumbai International Film Festival.