Dirk Simon has returned to the director's chair with his new documentary When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun: a film that looks at the Tibetan freedom movement.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the film, the lengthy and challenging process of getting it made and what lies ahead.
- When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun is about to be released on DVD, so can you tell me a little bit about the film?
The film is an unprecedented attempt to give a true inside perspective on the Tibetan freedom movement. Unlike other films on the subject matter, it does not try to simplify.
Instead, it presents the complexity of the issue and breaks with the clichés on both sides. At the same time, it features for the first time the unusual story of the only recognized descendant of the Great Religious Kings of Tibet, who wonders about the future of Tibet and tries to find his own path.
We had unusual access and the footage is at times breathtaking. You would not believe that this film was shot 'guerilla-style'.
- You are in the director's chair for the film so where did this project start for you? And what sparked your interest in the issues in Tibet?
At first it was supposed to be a film about the unbroken lineage of the Great Religious Kings of Tibet and a teenager, who inherited a throne without a country.
But over the years, learning more and more about the divisions within the Tibetan youth (in exile) and within the Tibetan freedom movement, I felt that the resulting confusion and disorientation needed to be documented as well.
The story and tone of the film changed over the years and I wanted to put the audience in that same spot, wondering what to do about the future.
In that sense, it is actually an interactive film. It might make it more difficult to watch, as the film does not offer the answer or the solution.
Instead it forces you to think for yourself. But after spending those years within the exiled Tibetan community, it seemed the only honest path to what I witnessed.
- How much did you know about this issue? How much did your idea and opinion of what happened in Tibet during the time that you were making this film?
I knew the basic facts of the Chinese invasion. But for most of it, making this film, was a huge learning experience. There was a constant evolution and the final twist on the story accured in the midst of principal photography.
Witnessing how the historical opportunity of having the Olympic Games in Beijing was eventually missed, gave the film a different direction.
- You talk to a lot of people that are in exile - many of whom are in India - so how keen were they to take part and have their say? And how did you track them down?
Most people were very supportive and open to the idea of being part of the film. But it was also a process of frequent travels to India, building relationships, and proving willingness to learn over a period of several years.
- This is a movie that was seven years in the making, what were the major challenges that you faced during that time?
Securing the financing was a major concern. And bringing such an epic story into a digestible form was not easy. Basically all practical aspects of production were not easy to master:
Filming in those countries under those conditions and the physical and mental stress it put on the film team, with no real support from the outside.
Driving this production over a period of seven years as author, director, and producer - by myself - was a challenge on its own.
- Can you talk a bit about the editing process as you have footage from India, China and the U.S., how did you find wading through all this footage to find the story?
Starting editing, I had three stories in mind that needed to be connected and told simultaneously: The young King, the active Tibetan freedom struggle (past and present) and the protests surrounding the Olympic torch rally.
Finding the right structure was a lengthy process. It was intense also because of the sheer amount of footage, 800+ hours in total. The challenge lied in intertwining the three parallel storylines. The run up to the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games and the torch rally became the frame.
With that, there was a rough structure. I did not want to use a narrator, except for the prologue. I wanted to lead the audience intuitively through the overall story, which doesn’t unfold chronologically but rather is a puzzle that, laid out piece by piece, eventually reveals the bigger picture.
So, we experimented a lot and shifted parts around. Towards the end, we had to take out whole sections because the first rough cut was three hours long. After a public test-screening in a movie theatre, we completed the fine cut.
- How much did the film change from the initial idea to the final film after seeing the footage that you obtained?
The change, or better the evolution of the film, happened while researching and filming, not so much during editing.
But I used many of the filmed sequences in the completed film as metaphors.
In that sense, many of the decisions which images to use for what particular part of the film (or in which context), were indeed made after reviewing the material.
- This is your second directorial outing, what did you learn on your debut Between The Lines that you were able to take forward on this latest film?
That it is very important to listen to the people and to search for the truth, even if you don’t like the outcome. I didn’t try to prove my point. The film exposes what unfolded in front of me - it is an observation.
- How have you found the response to the film so far?
I was prepared that this film might polarize the audience. That is not unusual and perception depends on a lot of factors. Some people say they are inspired, which is beautiful, but also a bit surprising as the film doesn’t paint a bright picture of the future.
But what struck me the most after completing the film, was the feedback from many sales people and buyers, that Tibet is not a story worth telling anymore, that it has expired already. I find that a very dangerous notion.
It is not only the ongoing suffering that we would turn a blind eye on. It also ignores the fact, that our future is connected to the future of Tibet.
China wants to be the world’s most powerful nation and we as the Western world show them no limits. Tibet is not as far away as many people seem to believe. We all should ask ourselves: Who and what will be next if we don’t put our foot down now?
- What do you hope people will take away from the movie when they see it?
When do we raise our voice, and when do we remain silent? Tibetans are not all monks, they are human beings, who make mistakes and even with a Dalai Lama, do not always have all the answers.
If this movement fails, we all have failed. If we prefer to make business with China and betray the very same ideals our forefathers died for, than it is a choice we have made.
- Finally, what's next for you? Do you intend to stay with documentary films for a while?
I am working on a number of projects that are in different stages - and they are not all documentaries.
When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun is out on DVD from the 9th December.