Fire Under the Snow comes 50 years after the failed Tibet Uprising and the flight of the Dalai Lama into northern India. At the centre of director Makoto Sasa’ documentary is Palden Gyatso, a monk and participant in the uprising. Arrested at 26 for his peaceful participation, Gyatso spent 33 years in Chinese prisons and labour camps.
Much of the documentary is spent listening to Gyatso tell harrowing tales from the torturous “re-education” program that many Tibeten prisoners faced. Even after having limbs broken and teeth shattered by an electrical prod, Gyatso holds no grudge because he believes it is his “karma” to endure.
Still such torture can have an impact, and in one of the first scenes of the documentary, Gyatso is seen one of the Tibet Freedom concerts speaking to the press while holding up the cattle prods used to blow out his teeth.
Today, Gyatso is still fervently involved in the Free Tibet movement and actively participates in demonstrations, even at the ripe age of 75 years.
Sasa compliments Gayatso’s segments by including interviews with friends, Tibetan refuges, organizers involved in the Free Tibet movement, and even the Dalai Lama. While not as riveting as Gayatso, the interviews provide details on the struggle that Tibet faces. All together, the compilation offers a grim yet inspirational package of Free Tibet movement history and facts, coupled with emotive stories of struggle.
It’s difficult not to become emotional during Fire Under the Snow. One of the most heartbreaking moments comes as Gyatso holds a hunger strike protesting the selection of China as host for the 2008 summer Olympics. Speaking to a fellow hunger striker, Gyatso weeps as he talks about the struggle he and other inmates faced in the clutches of the Chinese regime on a day-to-day basis.
Fire Under the Snow is a fitting title. Gyatso’s tranquil and weathered exterior shed a peaceful aura, like a pure snowfall, and undulating just below, a fiery passion burns for Tibetan independence.
Makoto Sasa’s film only provides more momentum for a movement that has no indication of slowing down. The story of Gayatso is only one of hundreds and thousands. How will Tibet gain its independence? Gayatso believes it is “because we have truth on our side.”
Another truth is that Fire Under the Snow will not disappoint.
Fire Under the Snow will be screened at Cinéma du Parc on March 20 at 9 p.m.