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On Film, a Monk’s Passion and Protest

July 8, 2008

From The New York Times – 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.

The filmmaker, Makoto Sasa, said she first heard of the monk, Palden Gyatso, when she was in college in Japan. After she arrived in New York to study film, alone and speaking no English, she read his memoir, “The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk” (Grove Press, 1997). “His story made me think my problem is nothing,” she said.

Ms. Sasa, 35, decided to make a documentary about him. She began raising money, with loans, donations and a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. She shot the film, “Fire Under the Snow,” in Tibet, Italy and India, where Mr. Gyatso, 77, now lives.

In order to film in Tibet, Ms. Sasa claimed that she was doing a film about a lama who has the support of the Chinese government and whose childhood home happened to be across the street from Mr. Gyatso’s.

And late last month, Mr. Gyatso came to New York to help raise money to distribute the film and to continue his decades of protest against Chinese rule in his homeland.

He stayed in the East Side apartment of the film’s executive producer, Maura Moynihan, rising at about 4:30 each morning with hours of prayer.

In the film, he tells of how his own existence, as well as that of Tibet, became frighteningly narrow and harsh after the Chinese invasion of 1950.

In 1959, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s leader, fled to India during an uprising in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Mr. Gyatso marched in protests during the uprising and was arrested when he returned to his monastery.

The Chinese authorities accused him and another monk who had been his mentor of being spies for India. When Mr. Gyatso refused to denounce the other monk or the Dalai Lama, soldiers hung him “naked like a light bulb from the ceiling,” he said, and beat him with iron bars. He was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison. In 1962, Mr. Gyatso and six other prisoners escaped and got as far as the Nepalese border. He was captured and sentenced to another eight years.

He was sent to a labor camp in 1975. But when he posted a sign advocating Tibetan independence he was ordered imprisoned for another eight years in 1983. During that last term Mr. Gyatso lost several teeth and his sense of taste when a jailer shoved a cattle prod down his throat.

Human rights groups helped secure Mr. Gyatso’s release in 1992. He fled Tibet by walking for 20 days over the Himalayas, finally arriving in Dharamsala, India, home of many Tibetan refugees, including the Dalai Lama.

Mr. Gyatso came to the United States in 1994 and testified before Congress. He showed the congressmen several instruments of torture that he had smuggled out.

On this visit, he attended several candlelight vigils for Tibet at Union Square, and one morning he went to ground zero to pray for those who had died there.

The film about Mr. Gyatso — “Fire Under the Snow,” which was the original title of his memoir — will be shown as part of the International Documentary Association’s Docuweek in New York from Aug. 8 to 14 and in Los Angeles from Aug. 22 to 28. As its makers are quick to point out, those dates overlap with the Olympic Games in Beijing.

Mr. Gyatso said through an interpreter that he believed that holding the Olympics in Beijing contradicted the spirit of the Games as “a celebration of human rights, of equality, freedom” because China had shown “no respect for human rights, no respect for freedom.”

As he spoke again of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, his eyes flashed and he punctuated his speech with emphatic gestures. “What the Chinese government really wants,” he said, “is to eliminate Tibetan culture, to basically terminate everything that is Tibetan.”

Despite his experiences, Mr. Gyatso said he felt compassion for his tormenters. In one scene in the film he says he “can’t entirely blame the officials for beating me, because if they didn’t beat me enough they would be dismissed.”

Ms. Moynihan, who became fascinated with Tibet when her father, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the future senator, was the United States ambassador to India in the 1970s, agreed to become the executive producer after Ms. Sasa showed the film at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

“We will never have this opportunity again, when the world spotlight will be focused on China,” Ms. Moynihan said.

She first met Mr. Gyatso in 1994 and considers him “the face” of the Tibetan protest.

“He speaks for the dead, for the tortured, for the incarcerated, for the silenced,” she said.

Mr. Gyatso, who filled his free moments in her apartment by painting calligraphy, said he had “no regrets in my life because I have made a humble contribution to the Tibetan cause, and to the cause of freedom and nonviolence around the world.”

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