‘When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun’ – an ambitious, holistic and exhausting documentary

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When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun

Directed by Dirk Simon

With it’s rather incendiary title leaving no doubt to its makers political persuasions When The Dragon Swallowed the Sun is an ambitious, holistic and exhausting documentary on the Chinese occupation of Tibet, a controversial incursion of alleged sovereign territory which has painfully endured for the past fifty years. Weaving in reminiscences from witnesses and resistance fighters of the original 1959 invasion, a swiftly disseminated potted history of the region and statements from various members of the hydra headed Liberation movement the documentary paints a vivid picture of the past century of Tibetan history, with the traditional method of archival footage and interview clusters illustrating a slow but inexorable suppression of indigenous Tibetan culture, the disintegration of religious independence and the unequivocal crushing of all claims of separate nationhood and self-determination.

It’s an emotive subject with passions high on both sides of the equation given its visibility on the world stage – perhaps only the Palestinian occupation has a higher media profile – so one wonders why this subject has not been broached before, at least with such a high-profile cinema release here in the UK (although granted this is restricted to the a scattering across the major cities), with perhaps only Scorsese’s Kundun featuring such a Westerncentric and First World produced treatment of this complex and emotional struggle. Given its long genesis – it’s taken seven long years of filming, research and clearances – the first impression of a piece already aged given our current hyperspace speed media culture, as much of the documentary focuses on the intense protest campaign focused on Beijing 2008, and given that we have had another Olympics since then the piece already feels archival and thus a little redundant. This footage however elicits fertile grounds of interrogation as the China’s desire for global respectability and credibility is counterpoised with their deafness to the chorus of toothless international condemnation, an implacable insistence on the righteousness of their occupation as they dismiss the credo of the protesters and activists who continue the struggle for independence.

Director Dirk Simon  is wise and even-handed enough to give oxygen to dissenting voices who challenge the Western status quo, who cite Tibet as a Chinese territory for centuries and whom cite the improvements the state as supplied to the region – transport infrastructure, education facilities, a growing affluence alongside the ethnic Chinese who are resettling in the area – but the vast majority of oratory is parsed to the exiled students, committed activists and regional scholars so you are left in no doubt whom the filmmakers side with on the contentious issue of homeland, religious freedom of speech and cultural suffocation. It’s unique selling point which differentiates the dossier from other material on the subject is that When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun is not afraid to scrutinise the freedom movements own internal strife and fractures, as with any political movement dissenting voices demand and shriek a spectrum of resistance, from docile discussions with the indifferent Chinese leadership to economic, non lethal sabotage of the invaders economic assets, potentially giving the overseers the political excuse they need to exert a terrible and bloody retaliation. The Dala Lama in exile features prominently and is also not immune from criticisms from his countrymen and women, as some grow exasperated as his perceived lack of leadership or effective negotiation of the international community.

A newly commissioned score from Thom Yorke, Damien Rice and Philip Glass comprise a metronomic melody which layers some horrendous footage with a hypnotic momentum, and some of the stories of the brutal oppression smothered on the Tibetan people is difficult to digest, although at almost two hours one feels that some of the musical asides could have been parsed down to alleviate the numbing runtime. The politicking may grow a little hysterical toward the end of the film – non-equivalent comparisons to the Holocaust are over-wrought and not helpful to the discussion, but overall this is rigorous and skilled non-fiction filmmaking, an aerolate audit of a festering wound in recent world history which one hopes will encourage viewers to add their support before the proud Tibetan sun is fully extinguished.

– John McEntee

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