Saturday, April 5, 2008
A remarkable film produced under remarkable conditions, Windhorse dares to present a realistic and scathingly critical depiction of Chinese oppression in Tibet. It's obvious from the opening credits that director Paul Wagner (Oscar®-winning producer of the 1984 documentary short The Stone Carvers) has a message to deliver about the plight of Tibet, and his clunky filmmaking serves a formulaic, melodramatic story. Set in 1998, it's a simple tale, accessible to a wide audience, in which a young Tibetan singer named Dolkar (Dadon) is a rising star on the Chinese-owned nightclub circuit, growing too comfortable with her own integration into Chinese society in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Her grandfather had been killed by the Chinese in 1959 for protesting against Chinese occupation, and now, 18 years later, her brother Dorjee (Jampa Kelsang) is aimless and unemployed, hating the Chinese and powerless to do anything about it. Their cousin Pema (played by an actress who must remain unidentified) is a Tibetan nun who is imprisoned and severely beaten for her outspoken protest against China and defiant embrace of the Dalai Lama as her religious leader. She is released to her family, weakened and on the verge of death, and her testimony about Chinese brutality is videotaped by a sympathetic American tourist (Teije Silverman). In depicting this dangerous activity, Windhorse becomes a vehicle for global awareness of Tibet's ongoing oppression. This personal history and family turmoil provides an intimate perspective on the Tibetan cause, and much of the film was shot illegally in Tibet with digital home-video cameras, under the noses of the Chinese police. Many of the Tibetan actors and crewmembers remain unnamed in the credits to protect their identities, and this clandestine production strategy gives Windhorse a sense of urgent authenticity, also resulting in a variety of interesting anecdotes in Wagner's audio commentary, recorded with cowriter/coproducer Julia Elliot and exiled Tibetan cowriter Thupten Tsering. The result is more of a human-rights treatise than a truly satisfying movie, but Windhorse retains enough dramatic impact to provide a powerful and still controversial look at a political crisis that remains stubbornly unsolved.