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By Bryan Newbury
July 2, 2008

“Time is running out for Tibet. Every day, while we are sitting here praying for world peace, inside Tibet there’s more and more and more… and more… Chinese moving in. And, as I see it, the Chinese are playing for time… and we’re playing into their hands.”

Lhasang Tsering, Pro-Independence Tibetan in Exile.

Proposed diegesis:

08.08.08. The Olympic Torch has arrived in Beijing, give or take a few hundred human rights related expulsions on the way, and the grand flame is alight in the cauldron. Without warning, an international event ensues. The countries involved immediately scramble into action mode. For the United States, it could be a further incursion into the Near East. For Germany or France, a retribution through immigration reforms. For any number of countries, any number of scenarios. 

What of the host country, then? In the paranoiac surveillance state of China, there are a hundred ways to spin the event. Whatever the case of the victim country, China can surely parlay the unfortunate event into additional repression of a chosen group. The smart money may very well be on the largely ignored Uyghur dissidents in Xinjiang province. Why not? They are Muslim, as the assailants will no doubt be, and there are no celebrities to rally on their behalf. Then again, the Tibetans have long been the face with which China’s Orwellian boot has sought to step on eternally. Again, what would stop them, provided they share the requisite intelligence on the criminals in this hypothetical situation?

If The Unwinking Gaze is any indication, it wouldn’t be His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. 

It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around the Tibet situation. Aside from the vocal, well-meaning… and, likely, misguided… activists in the west – with their “Free Tibet” stickers and catchy chants in tow – any outside observer must confess an embarrassing inability to appreciate the nuance His Holiness is obliged to deal with.

Joshua Dugdale is to be commended for presentation. The film presents The Dalai Lama as he is; or, at least, as he is within the parameters of cameras and microphones. Following a brief introduction, we are given His Holiness and his supplicants without voiceover. Restrained narration is often a demerit in documentary filmmaking. In the case of The Unwinking Gaze, the viewer is rewarded greatly. Whatever frustration might arise from a seeming lack of context is subsequently acquitted in the conversation it elicits. 

A possible point of debate would be The Dalai Lama’s politic nature. From one perspective, it would appear to be callous, the proclamations of a false prophet. When listening to Tsering or the Tibetan Youth Congress quite literally shouting from rooftops, the long view of His Holiness – secure in his Dharamsala castle – it is forgivable for the viewer to share a profound consternation with the patient “Middle Way.” On the other hand, what would you have him, or his countrymen, do? As he points out, to the Chinese, the loss of 100,000 is nothing. To the Tibetans, the loss of 100 is substantial. “What of Castro, the Granma, and Ernesto Guevara?” the response comes, “Or Mao, for Chrissakes? Would the Tibetans not be served better by their own Mao, rather than this ineffectual holy man?” Whatever victory could be expected, the other side will respond, would redefine Pyrrhic. 

Back and forth it goes, like the recently minted Olympic sport of table tennis. “The Tibetan leadership in exile seeks to retain only the linguistic, cultural and religious elements of society, happy to consign its brethren to slavery. What’s that, then? As long as they retain primitive control, they capitulate to the very modern Chinese concept of Market Stalinism?” “Would you have the Lamas and the Ayatollahs equated?” comes the reply. And on and on.

This is the magic within The Unwinking Gaze. To the detached viewer, it is anything but a naïve hosanna to His Holiness. There are fifty questions for every answer, which, in this case, is the best we can expect. The Dalai Lama may well qualify for sainthood. An argument exists for his being all too human. What better praise of a filmmaker than to say that he puts this complexity at our door? 


The Unwinking Gaze: The Inside Story of the Dalai Lama’s Struggle for Tibet

Produced & Directed by Joshua Dugdale

Color, 69 minutes, 2008