To document China's repression of Tibet, the filmmakers of "Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion" posed as tourists to fool watchful Chinese "minders." They were careful not to conduct any of their 68 interviews inside Tibet to protect their sources. And they challenged Chinese claims of religious freedom in Tibet by slipping a picture of the exiled Dalai Lama behind a Buddha and noting the furor that followed.
These were just a few steps in a 12-year marathon.
Melding 500 hours of smuggled tapes, trekkers' snapshots, and propaganda footage into 100 minutes, the documentary chronicles China's invasion of the remote country and depicts five subsequent decades of steadfast faith amid suppression on "the rooftop of the world."
The film's images are often stark, often brutal. But Victoria Mudd, an Oscar-winning documentarian who coproduced and cowrote the film, wanted to make the movie entertaining as well as moving. To that end, the film explores the Tibetan worldview of love and forgiveness to underscore the idea that nonviolent protest may eventually lead to religious and political freedom.
"We didn't want it to be the History Channel," says Ms. Mudd. "Nothing preachy, but with a little bit of a vision."
Mudd is optimistic that there's a healthy commercial market for nonfiction films and cites the successes of "Spellbound," "Winged Migration," and "Bowling for Columbine" as examples.
It helps that "Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion" has the backing of a few big voices in Hollywood. Martin Sheen narrates the film, and Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, and Ed Harris each provide voiceovers. Harrison Ford and Richard Gere have also added their support to the film.
The picture, directed by veteran cinematographer, Tom Peosay, tries to capture the complexity of modern-day Tibet. Buddhist prayer wheels alternate with the garish nightlife China has brought to the capital, Lhasa. Grim soldiers march past traditional Tibetan celebrations.
The Chinese claim that they "liberated" Tibet. Mudd says that's "baloney." Even so, she worked hard to include the Chinese rationale for dominating Tibet - that it freed peasants from a feudal regime.
The film challenges that point of view; one secretly filmed scene witnesses soldiers beating Tibetan monks. "We struggled endlessly as filmmakers [about] how to bear witness and relay the extent of the horror without completely alienating the viewer," Mudd says.
The filmmaker hopes that the documentary will inspire viewers to pressure China to ease restrictions on Tibetans and permit the Dalai Lama to return to his homeland. "If there's enough demand for the Dalai Lama to come home, this is the time to make it happen," she says. "We could have a nonviolent model for the world."