Such is the name of Simon’s bold and moving documentary which portrays the current situation in Tibet, a country that fights for independence and struggles to defend its culture, a freedom that the people of Tibet never stop believing in.
The Tibetan independence movement is led by the Dalai Lama, who maintains hope throughout a passive resistance, but time plays a major part when there is no one to succeed him and keep the fire alight.
“When the dragon swallowed the sun” is a film that, in two hours, seeks answers to unresolved questions raised by the world and even the Tibetan people, whose country received no support from the international community, as was demonstrated in the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.
The film shoot was full of difficulties and director, Dirk Simon, dedicated seven years to covering countries such as China, India and, of course, Tibet . He even covered the United States, when travelling around San Francisco.
This journey allowed him to capture the history of the Tibetan people in a clear and intelligent manner and to portray the repression, struggle and problems that this nation and its defenders confront.
Furthermore, the voice of Philip Glass narrates the 115 minute documentary whilst the music of Thom Yorke manages to move the audience to places such as the streets of San Francisco, Lhasa or the plains of Potala.
The film is produced by Free Motion Film, a production company that focuses on documentaries and narrative histories and looks for a creative and intellectual approach in all their projects. On the production of When the dragon swallowed the sun and other aspects Dirk Simon speaks to The Prisma.
Well, I never decided to make this film. I decided at some point to make a film about this young boy who became king. He is the only recognised descendent of the Great Religious Kings of Tibet and that story captivated me. That was in 2003 – 10 years ago.
That was the story I was following at first. But then, filming his coronation, I realised that there is not only this young boy who soon is going to take his throne. I found an entire generation of young Tibetans outside of Tibet, wondering what their future is going to look like. So, the story already started to change and slowly, over the years, it became the film you saw tonight.
It was supposed to be a fairly optimistic film, knowing that 2008 would be a great opportunity for the Tibetan movement with the Olympics in Beijing. I assumed that there would be a lot of protests and demonstrations, trying, to send a signal to the world. But then, there was this big failure instead of taking that opportunity in Delhi, India. The Olympic torch came after Paris, London, and San Francisco to Delhi and nothing happened… really. That’s when I realised that this film will be different, the story would be different.
My intention was to make this film in three, maximum four years. But then it took me 7 years to make it.
Did you work on the project with other people?
Eventually I did, when I had the money. But for most of the time, I was really driving it myself, going to India and China as often as possible. Every so often there was some support by consultants, but I was still doing the majority of the work myself – until 2008. When I had the funding, I hired the crew for the filming and we had a professional production.
There weren’t that many points of the Chinese to show. The first thought might be to include Chinese officials or Chinese politicians. But we had to move very very carefully. We had no permits and there was always the risk to be caught and to be thrown out of the country, without the permission to return for a couple of years, if at all. So, approaching any Chinese officials, I had to wait for it until the very end. Eventually I did use some channels I trusted. But they confirmed my concern that the only thing that officials could say would reflect on the official point of view. That would only be Chinese propaganda and would make it worse in my opinion. That would only prove that the Chinese government is evil and that nobody there is wiling to take a close look at the issue.
But I didn’t want it to make black and white and having Chinese politicians, giving us their propaganda that would have served the idea that all Chinese are bad and that everything in the Tibetan community is good. I wanted to avoid that. That’s why the politicians were not a very good option and we didn’t do it.
At the same time, I couldn’t run into the streets of China and ask people for their opinion on Tibet. The solution for the film was basically born out of a necessity, being in Beijing while a few things didn’t work out. I had some contacts within the local artist community and I started talking to some of them. I found Chinese artists, who care about humanity, who care about their fellow Chinese and some of them even care about Tibet. We show one guy who explains very well why most of the Chinese people don’t know the truth about Tibet. He speaks about this system of brain washing.
So, those Chinese artists basically represent the hope in China, showing us that not everything is evil in China. That helped me to create some kind of balance. Of course you see the other Chinese people too, in San Francisco, who only know the propaganda, but I wanted to see some good Chinese people in the film to get the point across.
Many Westerners don’t know about the reality faced by the Tibetans inside or outside Tibet. As a director who was involved in a seven yea project, what is your view on the future for Tibetans?
I think with the strategies of the last 25 years, there will be little to no improvement for the Tibetan people in Tibet. There is a lot of moral support in the West for Tibetans and their cause. But does that materialise into something Tibetans in Tibet can actually feel? Some Tibetan activists have criticised that Tibetans in exile are split in different camps with different goals and agendas. They are right.
Tibetans need to be united behind a common goal and led by a person that can take the issue to the international community, even when the 14th Dalai Lama is gone.
Without a change there, we won’t see improvement. And as long as most of the Chinese believe the propaganda that His Holiness is an evil person, there will be no help from that side either.
It was an amazing experience to work with those artists. Philip Glass understood from the beginning what I was looking for and it was very exciting to witness the recording in the studio. Thom Yorke signalled very early that he would help, even though he wasn’t sure yet what his schedule would allow him to provide. In the end, his pieces became the soundtrack for the entire San Francisco section of the film, a very important part. Damien Rice not only wrote the music, he also wrote the lyrics to, what I believe is, a masterpiece: “What if I’m wrong?” Damien was struggling for quite some time with the lyrics, until one day, he realised that no one is really free of guilt, that everyone finds moments in his life where he or she has done something bad to another person. From that perspective he wrote a very powerful song. Each of them brought their individual strength to the table and it was great to build something together.
It was very tough. It took 3 months just to organise the footage. It was 800 hours altogether. We were editing for almost a year. There were two main challenges. One was to bring the story of the young king together with the story of the political movement, the freedom movement. And the other one was that I wanted to lead the audience intuitively through the story. I didn’t want to have a narrator that connects the dots. With no chronological order, it was not an easy task.
Do you think the new era of HD cameras makes film production easier and cheaper?
The great advantage nowadays is that shooting in very high quality becomes more affordable. But even if you have an inexpensive, but very good camera, you still have personal costs. It always depends who is operating the camera. The most expensive camera doesn’t help you if you don’t know how to use it. Of course it has been a technicnological revolution. But that doesn’t mean in all cases – and that’s the mistake commissioning editors often do – that a good production can be done for almost no money at all. Even having a small production cost still some money. You can’t produce something cheaply without sacrifices.
(Introduction Translated by Rebeka Luniak)