PAUL WAGNER represents millions, if not billions, of people on earth who believe that the liberation of Tibet is a no-brainer.
After all, the country has remained under the yoke of communist China since the 1950 invasion. More than 1 million Tibetans have been killed. Numerous monasteries have been sacked. And the country's rightful leader, the Dalai Lama, remains in exile. In moral philosophy, this is what ancient scholars once referred to as a "duh truth."
Wagner, a local documentarian who made "Miles of Smiles" and won the Oscar for his documentary short "The Stone Carvers," has used his filmmaking skills to do something about his convictions -- trying to bring attention to the biggest duh since apartheid. The result: "Windhorse," a dramatic film, shot in Tibet and Nepal, which puts you directly in Tibet, spends time with Tibetan characters and gives you a deep sense of the country's rhythms and its atmosphere of political oppression.
Dramatically speaking, the script is rudimentary, reflecting the kind of logical progression of events that usually characterizes documentaries. And yet, Wagner has transmogrified the immediacy of documentary into the fictional arena. This $300,000 production may not have the dramatic power -- or the budget -- of "Kundun," but it has twice the authenticity. And emotionally, it's very compelling, thanks to the authentic presence of its nonprofessional, Tibetan performers and their persuasive bravery and national pride.
In the movie, which Wagner wrote with his co-producers Julia Elliott and Thupten Tsering, young Dorjee (Deepak Tserin), his sister Dolkar (Tenzin Pema) and their cousin Pema (Pasang Dolma) are innocently playing games when Dorjee's grandfather is slaughtered by Chinese troops.
Cut to 18 years later. Dorjee (now played by Jampa Kelsang) has become a disillusioned cigarette-smoking barfly. Dolkar (Dadon) has become obsessed with her singing career. And Pema (the actor's name withheld) has become a Buddhist nun, where she can revere Tibet and the Dalai Lama in a cloistered setting.
But they cannot escape the political strictures of their country. Dolkar becomes romantically involved with a Chinese music producer (Richard Chang), whose superior offers to make her a success, provided she sing songs about Chairman Mao.
When the Chinese issue an edict that all images of the Dalai be destroyed, Pema is forced to become a revolutionary. When she cries for liberation in a public place, she's arrested and beaten badly in prison.
Thus begins a chain of events that puts the family and their friends in danger. And Dorjee and Dolkar will truly appreciate the meaning of "windhorse," which refers to pieces of paper containing prayers of freedom, which Tibetans throw from high mountain passes -- so the gods will read them.
Actually, the story behind "Windhorse" is even more interesting than the movie. Wagner and cinematographer Steve Schecter shot much of "Windhorse" surreptitiously in Tibet and Nepal, using a small Sony mini-DV handy-cam. Secrecy was vital in occupied Tibet, but also necessary in Nepal, where the authorities are loath to antagonize the neighboring Chinese.
Wagner and company had recruited their cast through personal connections, since a public call for auditions in Tibet was unthinkable. For instance, Jampa Kelsang who plays Dorjee, was a childhood friend of Tsering's who lived in Nepal. Many of Wagner's cast and crew (most of them Tibetan) had their names withheld from the credits, for fear of reprisals. And when shooting, Wagner had to use subtle nods and gestures to cue cast and crew, to avoid attention in public places.
When Wagner shot the scene in which Pema yells "Free Tibet!" in the middle of a marketplace, Nepalese police visited Wagner the next day, and the Film Board demanded to see his footage. By then, however, the film had been hand-carried out of the country, according to Wagner. And the movie he wanted to make was on the road to completion. You can see the result for yourself (a portion of the profits go to Tibetan charities). And if you attend Friday, Wagner will be on hand to answer questions after the 7 p.m. show and to introduce the 9:15 show.
WINDHORSE (Unrated, 97 minutes) -- Contains moments of disturbing violence. At the Cinema Arts, Fairfax.