Fire Under the Snow
Photos and Video
This moving documentary tells the story of Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who was imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese Communist Army for 33 years. When the Chinese invaded in 1959, Palden, who was a young man at the time, became one of thousands of monks and nuns arrested during peaceful demonstrations. In this emotional and edifying film, Palden recounts the brutal torture, interrogations, and starvation he suffered during his confinement. Though he may have received better treatment for doing so, he steadfastly refused to confess to crimes he didn't commit or denounce his fellow Tibetans as traitors. After spending 23 years in prisons and 10 in labor camps, Palden was finally released in 1992. He escaped over treacherous, snow-covered mountains to Dharamsala, India, where he lives today with thousands of other exiled Tibetans. Now in his 70s, Palden tirelessly travels the world to raise awareness and campaign for total Tibetan independence from China. Fire Under the Snow seamlessly cuts back and forth between Palden's life today as an exile and activist, his haunting memories of prison, and his recurring nightmares. Palden's ceaseless dedication is highlighted through his participation in a hunger strike at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy to protest the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Using a vérité style, first-time Makoto Sasa mixes these scenes with cringe-inducing archival footage from Chinese prison camps and interviews with experts on Tibet, including the Dalai Lama. Fire Under the Snow sheds light on the decadeslong struggle for Tibetan independence through the experiences of one remarkable man. Despite all that he has been through, Palden's is an inspirational story of resilience and faith-of survival of the mind and soul under unthinkable duress.
Co-hosted with Asian Cinevision
Director's Statement Collapse
I am a Tokyo-born woman who has been trying to apply Buddhist philosophy to the challenges of hectic everyday life in New York City. One day, I heard an incredible story about a Tibetan Buddhist monk who was a political prisoner for 33 years, but finally escaped. Later, I read his remarkable autobiography Fire Under the Snow and was hooked. Palden Gyatso’s traumatic life story, intertwined as it is with the tragedy of Tibet, began haunting me. Looking at his gentle face on the book cover, seeing him smile tenderly with hands joined in prayer, I struggled to reconcile this warm presence with the bitter life recounted in the book. I tried to imagine how a return to relative normalcy was even possible after spending more than half his life under nightmare conditions. How could he still smile with such compassion? It put the concerns of my small life in the big city into a completely different perspective.
Inside of three months I was in Dharamsala with my film crew, and I found Palden Gyatso. Palden is now 75 years old and lives alone. His kindness and gentle manner are not some Tantric magic, but spring from simple, daily Buddhist practice cultivated over a lifetime—an insistence on seeing the Buddha-nature of all sentient beings, and working for their liberation unto his last breath. In our conversations, he was very humble regarding his own story, seeming almost removed from the events at times. However, reminiscences about friends starved or tortured to death, driven to suicide or still in prison, caused him to break down into heart-rending sobs: This is a legacy of pain beyond pain.
Today, open international support of Tibet is declining in the face of a gold rush into the ascendant Chinese economy. World leaders do not feel they can “afford” to challenge Beijing on the basis of human rights, for fear of incurring economic retaliation. However, Palden Gyatso's life story transcends notions of religion or political movements, and speaks to our entire earthbound condition. He accommodated suffering, but did not capitulate to it; this is not only his triumph, it is a story that needs re-telling in every generation. The pain and war of our own times and minds make this all the more evident.
Film Information Collapse
Cast & Credits Collapse
Producers Vladan Nikolic, Jim Browne, Makato Sasa
Associate Producers Lincoln Maguire, Aaron Mendez, Tiffany Ryan
Director of Photography Vladimir Subotic
Editor Milica Zec
Connect to this film Collapse
About the Director(s)Collapse
Makoto Sasa (b. 1973, Tokyo) studied media at Keio University in Japan and moved to New York City in 1998, where she received an MA in media studies from New School University. She has made several short documentaries, worked as assistant editor for the features Going Under (2003) and LOVE (2004), and edited a feature documentary about a Japanese photographer. Recently, Makoto has been directing and editing several short documentaries for Sony Japan's broadband streaming video website.