WHAT REMAINS OF US directed by François Prévost and Hugo Latulippe, with Kalsang Dolma and the Dalai Lama. 77 minutes. Subtitled. National Film Board. Opens Friday (April 8) at the Bloor. See Indie & Rep Movies, page 113. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Tibetan buddhism has become a bit of a cause célèbre in recent years. Stars like Richard Gere and the Beastie Boys have spoken out against the 50- year occupation of the tiny Asian country by its vast neighbour China.
It may seem like just another case of shallow Hollywood spiritualism. But Kalsang Dolma, the subject of the documentary What Remains Of Us, welcomes any notice paid by the West to the Tibetan plight.
"These actors have everything they need," she says from Montreal, "but it’s an artificial world. They want something real in their lives. That’s what they find in the Dalai Lama."
Dolma, a 32-year-old Tibetan Canadian, was born in an Indian refugee camp and emigrated to Quebec at 12. In What Remains Of Us, she travels into "the world’s largest prison" carrying a video message from Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to groups of nomads, monks, nuns and other Tibetans, many of whom have never seen his face before.
"Just saying the name ‘Dalai Lama’ can get you arrested," Dolma explains matter-of-factly.
She took a huge risk bringing the video into her native country, but she’d rather talk about the people inside who need help.
"I had the choice to do it or not. I had time to think about it. The people inside knew the risks they were taking – going to prison, torture, getting killed."
The film was originally supposed to be about a young woman in exile going home for the first time.
But on a trip to India, the filmmakers got a private one-hour audience with the Dalai Lama.
Near the end of the interview, director François Prévost asked if he had any message for the Tibetan people.
"He looked at the ceiling for a few moments and then spoke for five minutes," Dolma tells me.
The message is about not losing hope, that the world knows about Tibet and will not forget it. At that point, the focus of the film changed.
"I was so moved, I couldn’t speak for four hours," Dolma says. "Even his entourage said they’d never heard anything like that before."
The message has the same effect on the Tibetans in the film. They gather around the video player in silence, their faces showing a mixture of happiness, sadness, confusion and fear.
Dolma has to coax them to share their opinions. Informants are everywhere. In the film, Dolma investigates the records on Tibet kept by the UN, telegrams begging for help to stop the murders and disappearances that continue to this day under the Beijing regime.
No help came, and while the Tibetan problem is known in the West, nervous governments are afraid of offending China, with its huge population of potential consumers. But Dolma sees hope: during the Dalai Lama’s Western trip last year, presidents and prime ministers risked China’s wrath to meet with him.
"Our dear friends in Ottawa told us Paul Martin would never meet the Dalai Lama," she says drily. "But he eventually agreed, despite threatening letters from the Chinese ambassador."
Dolma warns that Tibet is running out of time. The current Dalai Lama is 59, and his chosen successor, a 13-year-old boy, is reportedly under house arrest in China.
"But as long as our cause is not forgotten, there is hope."
WHAT REMAINS OF US (François Prévost and Hugo Latulippe) Rating: NNN What Remains Of Us goes inside Tibet, “the world’s largest prison,” as Kalsang Dolma, a Tibetan Canadian, risks her own safety and that of her subjects to sneak a video message from the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, into the occupied country. At first almost incapable of expressing themselves, the Tibetans eventually open up about the hardships they endure and their fervent belief that one day there will be peace on earth and their nation will be free.