Sunday, January 18, 2009

Movie Review: Escape from Tibet; Nick Gray, dir; 1997

In Escape from Tibet, a 50-minute documentary for English television, director Nick Gray follows a dozen young Tibetans as they walk across the Himalayas into exile. With no special clothing or camping gear, carrying nothing but a few meager provisions and their life savings, the refugees hike across some of the world's most rugged landscape at altitudes of up to 6000 meters in -33° temperatures. Once in Nepal, they must walk at night to avoid police, and even after arriving at a refugee center in Kathmandu face deportation if they cannot convince the authorities of their legitimate status as refugees.

Crossing the border into Nepal

Sleeping rough in Nepal

This proves difficult for Tenzin, a boy of twelve whose unusual dialect has raised suspicions that he may be a Mongolian posing as Tibetan. The UN issues papers to the film's entire group, including Tenzin's older brother, Pasang – but not to Tenzin. On the night of the group's departure for India and the seat of Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala, Pasang bundles his brother Tenzin onto the bus and the pair ride undocumented into India.

The lack of papers is again an issue in Dharamsala and it appears possible Tenzin may be deported. But at the ritual audience of new refugees with the Dalai Lama, Pasang presses his brother's case and there before the cameras the Dalai Lama orders that Tenzin be allowed to stay.

Escape from Tibet is a touching film that is unfortunately today not in wide circulation. So far as I know it has not been released on DVD. Though now 11 years old, the issues it raises, and the difficulties of the individuals it chronicles, for the most part remain unchanged. Hundreds of Tibetans make this same trek every year, facing hardship and death to escape persecution in their own country. Their stories should be more widely known.


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