Nawang N. Anja-Tsang (Sonam) is a Tibetan film director based in London. He has been making documentaries about to Tibet and Tibetans since 2011. His first two documentaries, Little Tibet and Little Tibet II, detail his searches for a glimpse of Tibet in northeast India and Nepal. His third, Drensol (“Memory” in Tibetan) records the experiences of elderly Tibetans before, during, and after the Chinese invasion of their country. His most recent documentary, A Mother’s Son, is about the self-immolation of 16-year-old Dorjee Tsering in India last year. Tsering is one of the approximately 155 Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet who since 2009 have self-immolated in protest against Chinese rule.
Part I of this interview can be found here.
VOC: How have Chinese people reacted to your films? Have you changed anyone’s mind, or do people come to you with their minds already changed?
SONAM: Most of them had already changed. Because there is so much censorship in China, when Chinese people come here, most of them learn a lot and then they are quite open. Most of the ones I’ve met who have changed their mind are normal people, not from a political background or family—they will never change their minds—but people who just came on a scholarship or something, from a normal trading business family. They normally change their ideas.
Nowadays, my Chinese friends say that over here they are much more open, because there are so many ideas, so much access to them, and so they kind of know what’s going on. Unless you go to see a Chinese Prime Minster in this country, then there will be a bunch of students, who you know have political arguments with us.
I’ve met Chinese in America, but they were third or fourth generation. They are totally open, they even hosted my film. They’re all right. It depends on whether they have to be in the mainland, whether they are worried about blackmail or something.
VOC: When Chinese people try to express why Tibet belongs to them, they say it’s about the unity of the Chinese motherland and accuse the Dalai Lama of being a splittist. What do you think of those views?
SONAM: The Tibetan government also supports the idea of the middle way, with some sort of autonomy. If the Chinese say they want unity but groups like us Tibetans and the Uyghurs and Inner Mongolians are suppressed, how can you say we have freedom? Most of the time if a government has a minority they give them some sort of incentives or privileges, like in the northeast of India. But for us Tibetans it’s totally different: when we go from one village to another we need to register before we go and when we get there we have to register again. We are monitored all over. Imagine how much frustration people are feeling to be in their own country without any freedom. No matter how hard you squeeze a rubber ball it will always return to its original shape. And if you don’t squeeze it it will stay the same. In the good times people will forget, but in the bad times if you do bad things they will eventually push back even more.
VOC: How about the general international interest in Tibet? How important is this to what you do for Tibetans?
SONAM: I don’t make films because I want to be famous or anything. I simply make them because I want to be able to sleep well, knowing that I have done what I wanted. My father used to tell me that when you grow old you shouldn’t regret anything. Similarly I am doing the things now which I know I won’t regret when I grow old.
Of course, China is big now, and many countries don’t want to touch Tibet because there is so much pressure from the other side. I think they sometimes use Tibet as a tool to get better treatment from China. For example, they say, “What about if we meet the Dalai Lama?” and then the Chinese say, “Hold on, we’ll give you a better deal.” Nowadays business is so powerful. Every country wants to be financially healthy.
But deep down, I don’t think governments do much. It’s people who do, because they have compassion. They have nothing to lose with a country like China. Buddhism is becoming huge, even in China. Even last week when I saw H.H. the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa half of the hall was Chinese. They’ve been for so long without religion and now suddenly they have some religious freedom. Apart from state Christianity, maybe, which is an imported religion, the nearest one they always had was Buddhism, so now they are coming back to Buddhism. When the teacher is Tibetan, they will indirectly learn about Tibet.
I always think that changes should come from within. Similarly, with Tibet, the changes should start from China. Their people are oppressed, so they won’t give a damn about what we do because their own people have no access to things, so unless they are free they won’t understand us, and they will always call us “splittists” or whatever.
VOC: Recently, Chinese students in San Diego have complained about the Dalai Lama giving a speech at the University of San Diego. In recent years, have you noticed that China is getting more aggressive exerting pressure around the world? Do you feel they are becoming louder than they were, for example, 10 years ago?
SONAM: It depends on how you look at it. In general, this means that we are doing something right if they have become louder. If we weren’t doing something they found threatening they wouldn’t do it. I have heard that most of the students at protests, for example, have student leaders, and have to be there. When I was protesting during Xi Jinping’s visit to Britain, I saw that they had a coordinator who went around giving out coffee and sandwiches, whereas us pro-Tibet protesters were just shaking in the cold weather! I never got one coffee from anyone! [Laughs.] But they are powerful, they have their money. I know they are like an elephant and we are like an ant, but we will try and give a bite and see. Sometimes we might hit their eyes and they might have to blink a little bit.