The story surrounding The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet's Struggle for Freedom, a documentary that is more or less exactly what it sounds like, has long since become more compelling than the film itself, so perhaps it's best to start there: The Chinese government yanked the Rape of Nanking drama City of Life and Death from January's Palm Springs International Film Festival to protest the presence of The Sun Behind the Clouds on the festival's schedule. So when Film Forum chose to give the former film a two-week-long run, and its distributor, National Geographic World Films, couldn't deliver the film in time for its March 31 opening, the nonprofit used The Sun Behind the Clouds as a replacement. And the moviegoing public now has a textbook example of how film programming can be political, even apart from the content of any films programmed.
To put it quite plainly, the film behind the controversy is a fairly repetitive cause documentary, though an inward-looking one. On-the-ground activists and talking-head commentators—mostly writers whose desktop computers often lurk conspicuously around the edges of the frame—openly weigh the effectiveness of an older-school push for independence against the Dalai Lama's "Middle-Way Approach." But the appearance of the Dalai Lama himself, in exile in Dharamsala, India, since the violent Lhasa uprising of 1959, is the real coup of The Sun Behind the Clouds. Co-directors Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam have him explain his conciliatory thinking in lobbying the Chinese government for cultural autonomy instead of full-bore political independence. The run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, marked by protests for Tibetan freedom worldwide, eventually shows all this activist talk converted to action.
Tibet has long been a pet cause of American undergrads and stridently liberal-minded major-label rock acts, so it's initially quite bracing to be in the thick of the freedom-fighting, seeing as well the agonizing internal rifts among committed Tibetans about how to proceed most effectively. But The Sun Behind the Clouds is far from the sweeping and deeply informative eye-opener it so clearly aims to be. A voiceover by Sonam tends not toward explanatory clarity but rather first-person-plural groupthink. "For us," Woeser, a Tibetan poet writing in China, is a source of great inspiration; "our goal" is another typical phrase.
Sarin and Sonam's film, with its striking HD views of the Tibetan plateau, thankfully avoids any recruiting-tool talking points, but while it mulls over and over the Middle Way-versus-independence question, a great deal of background information remains frustratingly unexamined. At a few junctures in the documentary, dismissive Chinese officials appear in recycled press-conference footage, with one branding Tibet a "theocratic serf system." Instead of offering a broad historical overview of Tibetan society, and showing precisely how this feudal past has been erroneously transposed to the present by the Chinese government, Sarin and Sonam follow up with interviewees who—understandably but not very helpfully—shed light primarily on their own exasperation. The Sun Behind the Clouds might be about an endangered Buddhist way of life, but it's disappointingly short on actual enlightenment.
Opens March 31 at Film Forum