[21 September 2009]
When the Dali Lama came to Bloomington, Indiana, in 2007, I went to see him with some skepticism. In television and radio interviews he had always struck me as an ineffectual figurehead, full of bromides and generic peace talk, not the discourse befitting a political and spiritual leader in exile. But over the course of “Compassion: the Source of Peace”—more a series of observations followed by questions from the audience than a formal address—emerged a complex man with nuanced perspectives on the China-Tibet question, an uncompromising and ultimately moving dedication to peaceful activism, a pragmatic view of human nature and politics, and, surprisingly, a sense of humor.
In one of several anecdote-parables, he spoke of conversing with a Buddhist monk recently released from a Chinese prison. “I was in danger,” the monk told him, “of losing my compassion for the Chinese.” For the Dalai Lama, it became clear to me, the spiritual and the political are inseparable.
The Unwinking Gaze captures the political pragmatism I saw at the lecture, puts China-Tibet relations in a global context, and reveals the workings of the Tibetan government in exile. Despite the many glimpses of prayers and rituals, however, the film does little to connect the tenets of Buddhism with the Dalai Lama’s political and diplomatic actions, or to illuminate how faith motivates activists in and outside Tibet.
Footage of protests in Tibet during the lead-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing bookends the film, reminding viewers of the stakes of the negotiations on display in the documentary. The Dalai Lama confers with his advisors as controversy rages over his visit to Canada; Chinese diplomats spin the visit of the Chinese prime minister to London; Chinese students protest during the Dalai Lama’s trip to Liverpool; Tibetan envoys prepare for and debrief after yet another diplomatic mission to China; activists share their perspectives; the yearly neuroscience and Buddhism conference founded by the Dalai Lama to bring science and spirituality together takes place at his official Indian residence in Dharamsala; the Dalai Lama visits Bodh Gaya, India, where it is said that Buddha attained enlightenment; historical footage shows the Dalai Lama’s envoy being mobbed in Lhasa in 1980, the last time China allowed such a visit; and in Washington, President George W. Bush awards the leader the Congressional Gold Medal.
But the film isn’t just about politics. Buddhist rituals, the Dalai Lama’s interaction with visitors to Dharamsala, including one moving encounter with a dying man, and shots of the Dalai Lama praying and meditating paint a more personal, intimate portrait. The Dalai Lama confesses that he sees himself as a monk foremost, and even admits that he doesn’t really know if he’s the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. After 50 years of disappointment, he remains patient and optimistic. It’s “still too early to say”, he observes, of prospects for a free Tibet.
After viewing this exhausting series of moves and countermoves, public appearances and private moments, it’s hard not to share the frustration members of the Dalai Lama’s circle sometimes reveal after seeing all their overtures met with the same maddening intransigence from the Chinese government. No matter how many times the Dalai Lama says he supports Chinese rule in Tibet, Beijing continues to accuse him of fomenting rebellion and working for independence in the region.
The Unwinking Gaze would be even more successful at eliciting the viewer’s sympathy if the film didn’t suffer from an inconsistent editorial style. This might not be so obvious, had producer and director Joshua Dugdale not included a prologue in which he announces, in a rather pompous voiceover, that he and his crew enjoyed free access to the Dalai Lama during three years of filmmaking, and that because footage of the leader will be carefully analyzed by audiences, The Unwinking Gaze will eschew a narrative voiceover that might fuel a charge of bias on the part of the filmmaker.
“The Dalai Lama can speak for himself, and you can make up your own mind”, he asserts. Yet at times throughout the film, commentary from newscasters or experts, as well as intertitles that often go beyond simple explication to make judgments, serve the same function as a voiceover. All documentaries have a perspective, and to suggest otherwise, especially at the start of a film exploring the trustworthiness of its subject, seems disingenuous.
For all its scenes of religious practices, The Unwinking Gaze remains strangely silent on how Buddhism shapes the policies of the Tibetan government in exile. The only doctrine the film treats, and this only briefly, is reincarnation; the dedication to nonviolence and compassion doesn’t figure at all. But this seems the key to understanding the Dalai Lama’s actions, as well as his odd commingling of skeptical pragmatism and idealistic optimism. It also explains why the Chinese refuse to allow the Dalai Lama to travel to China or Tibet, and why they try so hard to turn the Chinese and Tibetan populations against him. How else can you deal with an enemy who refuses to hate you?
Extras include a 12-minute interview with the Dalai Lama, excerpts of which appear in The Unwinking Gaze. Unfortunately the interview hasn’t been subtitled, which is a big help in the documentary, since a thick accent and broken English could sometimes render the Dalai Lama incomprehensible to some viewers. An illuminating interview with Tibet expert Andrew Fischer puts the 2008 protests in Tibet in historical and political context, and outlines recent Chinese efforts at economic development, as well as increasing repression in the region. Indiepix trailers include The Sisters of Ladakh, a documentary about Buddhist nuns.