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Stories behind documentary 'A Year in Tibet'
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Lhakpa, a young man who supports his family by pulling a rickshaw, unloading trucks, painting houses and cleaning cesspools, was a tough nut to crack, found Sun Shuyun, an independent film maker. He was one of eight Tibetans Sun followed for a whole year for her documentary, "A Year in Tibet."

"I'm not proud of being poor. Why should I allow you to laugh at me?" retorted Lhakpa when Sun first approached him in Gyangze, the third-largest town of the Tibet autonomous region, in the summer of 2006.

"Lhakpa occupies the bottommost rungs of society. Outsiders can hardly understand his struggles, bitterness and hopes. He has the strongest build of all our characters, but the most fragile heart," says Sun.

Even when he finally joined Sun's project, Lhakpa walked out constantly at imagined slights.

"I had to summon up 300 percent of my energy to think about how not to offend him. But he gave us the best story of all," Sun recalls.

Ozer, Lhakpa's 5-year-old nephew, fell into a coma caused by a congenital heart problem and doctors said he would need an operation that would cost an astronomical 120,000 yuan (US$17,600).

Lhakpa and his brothers frantically searched for Tibetan mastiff puppies as they can bring huge profits. But they got cheated and lost 700 yuan (US$ 102). At a construction site 700 km away from home, Lhakpa and his brothers were bullied and not paid their wages.

At the end of the shooting however, when Sun gathered everyone for a banquet, Lhakpa announced that he was soon to become a father.

"His daughter is the most beautiful baby I've seen. How life flows," Sun says.

The lives of Lhakpa and other Tibetans had audiences glued to their TV sets when Sun's 5-episode documentary was aired on BBC last March, just a week before the March 14 incident in Lhasa that drew the world's attention.

Sun is gratified that the film and her book of the same title had been well received with most people, including critics.

"Throughout 'A Year in Tibet' are experiences [like the sky burial] that intrigue Shuyun an enlightening look at one of the least known people on the planet," wrote the Observer.

BBC Worldwide has distributed the documentary in more than 50 countries and regions. Before her documentary and the book were launched in China this July, some netizens had already downloaded her documentary and even provided Chinese subtitles.

Jan Morris, a woman in her 50s who lives in Oxford, called Sun to donate money for Lhakpa's nephew to undergo the heart operation and get an education.

"As a writer, I hope my works can dispel misunderstandings. Little did I expect that we could help save a life," says an emotional Sun.

Born in the 1960s in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, Sun has been living in Britain for 20 years. But Tibet has always drawn her. In Oxford, she learned Tibetan from her mentor Michael Aris, who was married to Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The rapid changes in Tibet prompted Sun to record the disappearing traditions. Also, she wanted to know what common Tibetans really cared about.

While obtaining a film permit and finding suitable characters were daunting in themselves, gaining the trust of the locals was even more difficult. But respect and persistence finally helped the frail but strong-willed lady overcome all obstacles.

Without government funding, Sun and her Tibetan-dominated 10-member crew secured US$800,000 through the British film production company, Seven Stones Media.

They found a traditional courtyard and the owner, the local neighborhood committee, surprisingly rented them the rooms. When the locals stopped by, fascinated by the cameras on site, they would talk about their troubles, and these became valuable clues.

Jianzang, a shrewd hotel owner, was equally hard to win over just like Lhakpa. His hotel is recommended by The Lonely Planet as "the best budget hotel in Gyangze" and provided Sun with lots of exciting information.

One amazing scene in the film shows Jianzang winning a lawsuit defending his Chinese friend. When he went on a pilgrimage to Nepal, Jianzang searched for the best chef to improve his service and demanded the date of manufacture of everything he wanted to buy.

"Jianzang is smart. His story shows that Tibetans are also benefiting from the opportunities created by economic development, although he wasn't very eager at first about our project," Sun says.

When the documentary was aired, Jianzang apologized for his "short-sightedness".

"You've opened the door to the golden treasury for me - hordes of tourists have come to my hotel holding your book."

Reading Sun's book is enjoyable as she gracefully (in English) and passionately (in Chinese) analyzes what she sees in reality and learns in others' records of Tibet.

Tseten, a village shaman, sits at the core of rural Tibetan life. Farmers from far and wide stream to his home for rituals to drive away evil spirits that are deemed responsible for everything from toothaches to lost dogs.

Sun discovered that inadequate medical services, besides traditional beliefs, also contributed to Tseten's power. The Tangmad township, where she filmed Tseten, has only one doctor serving several thousand people.

Dr Lhamo, who has only two years of medical training, trembles when she hears a knock on the door at night. Most local women won't go to her clinic until the last moment while in labor, because of a belief that giving birth is filthy.

Sun tried to capture the image of a smiling mother and a crying healthy newborn, and succeeded only on her fifth attempt - the other four had all ended in stillbirths.

A fascinating aspect of Tseten's family is that he and his two older brothers share one wife, Yangdron. Sun learned that polyandry still prevails in rural Tibet as it keeps the land and other farm wealth within one family. But she wanted to ask the woman and her husbands what they thought about their married life.

Tseten simply said Yangdron was "OK". So Sun walked out of the family's prayer room and into the kitchen to ask Dondan, who does all the heavy farm work.

"We are very close. She's a wonderful wife," Dondan replied, smiling.

"My jaw dropped, their answers were so different," Sun says, adding that the existence of polyandry shows the government allows Tibetans to maintain social customs that suit their lives.

The story took another turn when Sun discovered that Tseten's father Mila is the brother of Jianzang's mother, Mola.

Mila and Mola were both revered religious figures who were driven out of the monastery and nunnery in the late 1950s before the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) swept across the whole nation. Still, they held on to their faith, trying to pass on their knowledge to any interested children.

Sun says the stories in "A Year in Tibet" touch upon many aspects of Tibetan life. The challenges confronting Lhakpa and others struggling at the bottom of society; the religious freedom as shown in people's respect for Tseten and other shamans; the social development that has benefited smart men like Jianzang and the difficulties faced by people such as Dr Lhamo.

"I am no politician, I don't praise or criticize. I try to record and present Tibet as it is and let the audiences reach their own conclusions," says Sun.

"A Year in Tibet" will soon be aired on Phoenix TV. The Chinese book of the same title has just been published by the Beijing October Arts & Literature Publishing House.

(China Daily September 23, 2009)

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