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Windhorse

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 28 May 1999

  Directed by Paul Wagner.

Starring Dadon, Jampa Kelsang, Richard Chang,
Nima Bhuti, Pema Choekyi, Taije Silverman,
and several performers who have
chosen to appear anonymously.

Written by Julia Elliott, Thupten Tsering
and Paul Wagner.

Windhorse, a film about modern Tibet made by the U.S. documentary filmmaker Paul Wagner, starts out with a reminder that good intentions may sometimes hinder, rather than help, a film artistically. Three children play in a mountain village while a narrator tells us, in English, about when he asked his father how prayers find their way to their intended spot. They are carried aloft by "windhorses," the father replied, whether in the form of prayer flags or paper scattered to the winds on hilltops. Or by movies like this, I thought, since we already know that the film is going to be about the cultural and religious oppression of Tibet by the People's Republic of China, which has forcibly occupied the country since 1959. The film is also preceded by a short informational spot promoting the Free Tibet Project, in which several recognizable Western celebrities can be seen.

The three children seen in the village grow to adulthood. Dorjee (Jampa Kelsang) is a drunkard and lay about, making jokes at the expense of foreign tourists and flippantly expressing resentment towards the Chinese. (The Mandarin dialogue in the film is subtitled in italics; the Tibetan dialogue is presented in regular type.) His sister, Dolkar (played by the Tibetan-American singer Dadon), is a successful performer in a nightclub in the capitol city of Lhasa (where the centuries-old architecture is gradually being pushed-out by newer, soulless buildings); her Chinese boyfriend (Richard Chang) doesn't even know Tibetan -- allowing him to be happily insulted to his face during visits to the apartment Dolkar shares with her mother (Nima Bhuti) and grandmother (Pema Choekyi, a birdlike woman whose appearance in the film is undeniably endearing) -- and is offered a recording contract, accompanied by new material composed of sterile electropop tunes that extol the "freedoms" now experienced by the Chinese people due to the efforts of Chairman Mao. (Mao himself, it was later revealed, was more than a little frightened by the dragon he had let loose in China, particularly during the mass hysteria that accompanied the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.)

Their cousin, Pema, on the other hand, has become a Buddhist nun, living in a convent where the women, with bare, shaved heads and wearing simple red and orange, practice their faith while forbidden by the authorities to display pictures of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. (The depiction of their simple, unadorned worship takes on a sort of power of its own, as the film progresses.) While on a trip to Lhasa, Pema becomes overwhelmed by the crowds, the noise, the people living in penury in the streets. Her sudden, completely unexpected, spontaneous reaction to all this lands her in the hands of the police, and, not surprisingly, affects the lives of Dorjee and Dolkar, as well.

In articles that preceded the film's first appearance in U.S. theaters this spring, Wagner, who has previously done documentary work on Irish immigrants and Italian-American stone craftsmen, said that he did the location shooting, with a few of the actors appearing in the film, using mini-DV (digital video) equipment, shooting on the sly since there was no way that he could get permission from the authorities to film this material. (The film's co-writer, Julia Elliot, was herself seized by Chinese officials during a visit to Lhasa, relieved of her video equipment, and forced to sign a confession before going free.) The footage was then combined with digital Betacam footage made, in wide-screen ratio, in Kathmandu and Nepal, and then transferred to 35 mm. film. While it's hard on the visuals at times, it lends the film an air of immediacy, something that helps transcend some of the blunter object lesson quality that forms much of the story.

The actress who plays Pema is, along with two other performers who play key roles in the film and many other supporting or bit players, not named in the end credits. In fact, a lot of people who worked on the production of the film are not listed -- entire production crews are credited as simply "NAME WITHHELD (9)" -- making the film's depiction of a government that reacts swiftly and unhesitatingly no joke. Considering the circumstances under which it was made, the performances and staging are quite good, and the spark of passion that must have been needed to hold this type of a project together can be seen, and felt, in the end results.

Despite its overall polemical nature, Windhorse still has something. (And it seems to be affecting audiences who are seeing it, judging from the reaction I saw.) It ends up causing you to reflect upon the importance of living in a country where one can worship in however way one sees fit, without fear of reprisal, and the true lunacy of being punished over something like possessing a harmless photograph, or for speaking your mind.


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