Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi "Windhorse"

By Stephen Ausherman

APRIL 26, 1999:  Windhorse is a magnificent film worthy of the various awards it garnered at festivals around the country last year. But perhaps more amazing is the story of its making. It began in 1993, when the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Paul Wagner learned that his niece, Julia Elliot, had been detained by Chinese authorities in Tibet after she photographed a public demonstration in Lhasa. Over the next few years, Wagner learned more about Tibetan culture and the Chinese regime bent on destroying it. By 1996, he was ready to collaborate with Elliot and her Tibetan boyfriend Thupten Tsering on the film that would become Windhorse.

Ironically, the catalyst for this project--Elliot smuggling controversial film out of Tibet--was repeated twice during the production that followed. The first instance is part of the film, a climactic scene that shows an American attempting to smuggle out the damning testimony of a Buddhist nun. The second occurred in real life: Several key scenes were illegally shot in Lhasa and smuggled out.

These scenes from Lhasa, shot with a Sony mini-DV handy-cam, add a sense of realism that should be expected from an accomplished documentary filmmaker like Wagner. In this, his first dramatic feature, Wagner creates a theme that seems to revolve around the power of the camera itself and its effects on those in front of it. An American tourist's camera encourages young Tibetans to show off, while Chinese surveillance cameras discourage them from expressing their opinions in public. Chinese TV cameras are used to persuade a Tibetan to sing Chinese propaganda for both Chinese and Tibetan audiences.

In all, cameras are used to evoke strong emotions from both viewers and subjects. That, too, can be expected from a documentary filmmaker. What comes as a total surprise is the realism of the acting, considering that most of the actors here are not professionals. When confronted by a camera within certain scenes, their behavior seems unnatural enough, given that none has any experience in front of one. But take away the camera and their full characters seem to emerge, making it easy to forget that the director's camera is still present. Performances by local, nonprofessional actors haven't been this good since Mira Nair's 1988 Academy Award-winner, Salaam Bombay!

Much of Wagner's cast and crew withheld their names from the credits for fear of Chinese reprisal. However, in an unsettling twist of irony, their hopes for anonymity seem foolish in light of a scene that depicts Chinese authorities effectively tracking down dissidents with the aid of surveillance footage and publicity photos. With Wagner's video in hand, the government's job of tracking down the actors will be all the easier. Viewers should wonder whether Wagner's risks were justified.

Viewers should also wonder if Windhorse is just the latest in a long spate of anti-Chinese propaganda. The film picks up where Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun left off. It begins in 1979, high in the mountains of western Tibet. Three small children play in the street of an idyllic village when two soldiers from the People's Liberation Army arrive. They have the same heartless, sinister demeanor as the PLA soldiers in Red Square, Lethal Weapon 4 and a myriad of other movies. And true to this American cinematic stereotype, they inexplicably gun down the children's grandfather as he prays in his home. The three children grow to take three very separate paths. One becomes a beautiful and gifted singer willing to do anything to succeed in the Chinese-controlled music industry. One allows his hatred of the Chinese to turn him into an embittered vagrant. The third seeks solace in the life of a Buddhist nun. As adults, each experiences a different perspective on the PLA's brutal reign.

Subtlety and balance are what separate persuasive filmmaking from propaganda. Passion for a cause, however just, can blind a director from knowing the difference. Wagner makes it obvious that his film is part of the Tibetan crusade, but that doesn't stop him from entering Tibet with his eyes wide open.

Following the brief introduction, the film cuts to present-day Lhasa and shows that it's no Shangri-La. Tibetans can be obnoxious drunks with an affinity for cheesy disco. And, toward the end, the meanest bastard in the whole film turns out to be a Tibetan. Meanwhile, a Chinese Party member is depicted as caring, almost heroic. In short, everyone is human--except, of course, anyone in a PLA uniform.

Wagner spends considerable effort emphasizing that the enemy is not the Chinese people, but the regime. As one character puts it, people have suffered all over China, not just in Tibet.

Wagner is right in assuming that the camera is a tool that is just as effective in finding truth as it is in fabricating lies. Windhorse, he says, is based on many true stories, but is nonetheless a work of fiction. In the end, Wagner condemns propaganda with a film that is, technically speaking, a work of propaganda. Despite the risk of hypocrisy, he succeeds in creating a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening film for anyone who is not a member of the PLA.

For more about Windhorse, see www.windhorse.com.

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