Long a symbol for Western ignorance of ethnic suffering among the glibly humanitarian, the plight of the Tibetan people is easy to sympathize with but exceedingly difficult to assuage either with socio-political theory or bare-knuckled physical aid. This is the somewhat anticlimactic thesis around which The Sun Behind the Clouds is situated, and as a result there’s a restless futility at the documentary’s core; one senses the need to document and broadcast the ongoing tragedy of Tibet wincingly paired with the knowledge that so long as the Dalai Lama refuses to endorse the use of force, or even defense, he is a participant of sorts in his country’s disintegration.
It’s somewhat ironic, then, that China should pull their blockbuster The City of Life and Death from U.S. distribution after being forced to share a festival billing with this title; Sun Behind the Clouds isn’t precisely sympathetic toward Beijing, but it doesn’t shy away from the Dalai Lama’s egregious failures as a national leader either. Building on this irresolvable tension doesn’t leave much for directors Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam to do aside from ensure that their reportage maintains a degree of competency (a task they very nearly fumble with), but the act of promoting an awareness of the China-Tibet conflict in its most recent iteration is a duty laced with global urgency—if for no other reason than to illustrate how not to gain national independence from opportunists with firearms.
Denied by their saintly, pacifist leader and peace-accentuating mores the militant recalcitrance that might successfully intimidate China, the Tibetans are locked in a nearly mythic cycle of post-occupation oppression, likely doomed to observe their homeland definitively dissolve by way of police brutality and cultural absorption. Not surprisingly, the latter of these has never been properly addressed by occidental journalists due to the lack of sensationalist violence in photographs of Tibetan cities overrun by Chinese tourists and immigrants; some of the film’s most fascinating moments are composed of interviews with Asian writers who are convinced that soon enough, Tibet will be inhabited by precious few indigenous peoples.
Brutality is depicted as well, of course; in fact, the flurry of Tibetan uprisings in 2008 are somewhat angrily juxtaposed with splendiferously staged interviews wherein the Dalai Lama describes his staunch adherence to “The Middle Way,” an attempt to establish autonomy, but not independence, from China. The Chinese government, however, continually rejects this proposal as a trick, leaving his holiness to hang his bulbous, Charlie Brown-esque head while Tibetan demonstrators are beaten with clubs and carted off. The filmmakers manage to cleverly vent their frustration with these irreconcilable ideologies in minute details: The weather-worn tennis shoes the protesters wear beneath their proud robes as they march through the mountains, for example, are a powerful indicator that what we’re seeing is as real and in the now as it is appalling. But the filmmakers lack confidence in the effectiveness of their unadorned, and occasionally puzzling, images and testimonials, an ambivalence they manifest in inane slow-motion footage and a sonorous guitar soundtrack.
The drippy editorializing is a shame, because it’s oddly not the unprecedented candor of the Dalai Lama that speaks for the Tibetan struggle most piquantly (for one thing, it would have behooved the editors to gloss his holiness with subtitles). One young revolutionary passionately proclaims his yearning to live in a sovereign Tibet but then immediately contradicts his zeal by admitting that the thought of sacrificing lives for the cause deeply offends his Buddhist principles; an ex-POW describes being tortured with shredded photographs of the Dalai Lama and feeling overcome with ineffable hopelessness. Though the point cannot be made without appearing insensitive to fragile hierarchies of belief, the fact remains that only those with sacred objects can be terrorized with sacrilege, just as only those who abstain from violence can be easily overpowered. Sun Behind the Clouds may ultimately beg its audience for empathic tears where it should avoid dramatic technique altogether, but it’s an apt reminder that China’s strengths and Tibet’s weaknesses remain catastrophically and parasitically aligned.