Moviegoing as an Act of Protest

A look back 10 years ago, when going to see Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam's 'The Sun Behind the Clouds' meant solidarity with Tibet.

The Sun Behind the Clouds
Zeitgeist Films

This Doc Talk column was originally published on Cinematic on March 31, 2010.

You are no doubt familiar with activist documentaries made to function as cinematic protests against something or other. Recent Oscar-winner The Cove is a good example. And you surely have read many times about people boycotting films, nonfiction and fiction alike, for any number of reasons. The Catholic Church is regularly involved in such expressive disapproval. And last month there was an enormous political movement in India to disrupt the distribution of the Bollywood drama My Name is Khan over some cricket-based controversy.

But how often do we hear about actual moviegoing being a form of protest? I can’t think of any marketing ploy directly meant to sell a film as an anti-boycott in a matter of speaking. There is a new documentary, however, for which I think the act of viewing it may alone be considered a form of protest against China’s control of Tibet. As well as a protest against censorship. Titled The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom, the film opens at NYC’s Film Forum today in place of the latest work of acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan, City of Life and Death, which was originally booked to play at the theater this week.

Lu’s well-reviewed historical drama (along with another film) was recently pulled from this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival by its state-run exporter because of the fest’s decision to also screen The Sun Behind the Clouds (first the Chinese Film Group attempted to have the documentary removed instead). A month later, National Geographic, the U.S. distributor of City of Life and Death, claimed that due to ongoing negotiations with the Chinese film board, it would not be able to deliver the film on time to the cinema. Although it’s unknown if the delay is related to the Palm Springs controversy, the vacancy has been appropriately filled by the offending documentary.

The interesting thing about The Sun Behind the Clouds is that it’s not exactly a one-sided film. While set amidst the massive 2008 uprising that began in Lhasa and spread across the Tibetan plateau, and though documenting the subsequent months-long Return to Tibet March of exiles through the Himalayas to the Indo-Tibetan border in support of the revolt, as well as the worldwide public demonstrations against China during its international attention for the Beijing Olympics, the film is ultimately concentrated on the conflict of two sides clashing within the Tibetan freedom movement.

The Dalai Lama, who is one of a handful of interviewees featured, currently seeks support for his compromising “Middle Way Approach,” which requests from China genuine autonomy if not total independence. Many of his followers, including much of those involved in the violent uprising, ignore this new strategy and continue striving for complete freedom, sometimes in non-peaceful ways. And this inner struggle only makes things worse for the region’s relationship and potential for future negotiations with the Chinese government.

Both sides of the internal debate, as well as the doc’s married filmmakers, Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, are united in the film against China, yet The Sun Behind the Clouds could nonetheless be worthwhile viewing for a nationalist Chinese audience. But because of the obvious political act, it has become now to just see the movie — mainly due to the film fest controversy — that will probably never happen, not even with a screening held free of cost.

After watching the film, I wondered if this concept of moviegoing as protest affects a broader acceptance towards documentary in general and how specific cause-oriented films, one-sided or well-balanced, may never be able to attract more objective interest from potentially or definitely opposing audiences.

There may indeed be an underlying understanding that buying a ticket to The Cove supports the cause against dolphin slaughter. Or that going to see something like Darfur Now is a sign of protest against the genocide there. Some films may promote themselves by claiming to donate a certain amount of the proceeds to their cause, though this is more often in the case of DVD sales for smaller profile documentaries. Much of the time theatrical distribution is too costly to allow for such large-percentage charity.

In many cases, it’s better for a documentary not to be sold as a protest because then the films are merely preaching to the choir. Think about the bigger films that try to reach both sides of an issue. Would critics and skeptics of the global warming crusade see An Inconvenient Truth if right away, before the film even raised its argument, these potential moviegoers were informed they are already supporting the cause with their entry fee? Not even those on the fence should feel obligated to donate to a cause they don’t now nor may ever believe in. Yet films like this should be seen by everyone, either as a conversation starter or for the appreciation of the films themselves.

But there lies the rub with commodity forms of protest. Who’d believe Michael Moore isn’t getting richer from the success of his films? And regardless of how much of that money is donated to any of the people or causes, he’s seeking to help with his work, some of the profit will support him and further his partisan filmmaking career. People of all political and social ideals are encouraged to see his films, but how many who contributed towards the record-breaking gross of Fahrenheit 9/11 would later regret allowing “the enemy” to benefit from the money they paid for it? And how many of those moviegoers think twice now about going to a “must-see” documentary?

Now I’m likely dissuading more people from seeing any more documentaries, and that isn’t my intent. I think the idea that buying a ticket aligns a moviegoer to a cause is already a problem for nonfiction cinema. But it’s certainly not always the case. I’ll always prefer that documentarians wishing to reach a wide and diverse audience leave the charity, donating and other cause-supportive measures (such as petitions), to a segment of their film’s website. And any proceeds from screenings and rentals should go towards the production of the film, including salaries of the filmmakers, rather than the cause it favors.

Aside from Moore, no documentarian I’ve ever seen is making loads of money from their work, so we can’t think of our ticket money entirely supporting something we disagree with just because it puts food on the plate of someone we disagree with. And if there is concern with this minimal allowance, you must be one of those most determined individuals who monitors every purchase, every food product, every little daily act in an effort to do as little to help out any offending or disagreed with party (alas you’ll never see the merits of Triumph of the Will, The Birth of a Nation and whatever Mel Gibson might do in the future that’s worth viewing).

I tend to watch documentaries more for the films themselves rather than their cause, and I’m proudly as open-minded as can be, so I’ll gladly watch a film from China’s point of view, a movie defending dolphin slaughter and a documentary arguing that global warming is a lie. And I won’t feel that I’m supporting these causes simply by opening my eyes before them or contributing whatever percentage of my Netflix subscription fee goes to each film I view. And I’ll certainly see any movie that, like The Sun Behind the Clouds, serves as a direct or indirect reminder of our freedom to view whatever kind of film we wish.

Do you think about who or what you might be supporting, financially or action-wise, when you go to the movies, especially documentaries?

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.