Arriving at the premiere of “Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion,” was already an overwhelming experience. The film festival, thus far, had consisted of mostly filled theaters and complacent audiences. Here, the audience was fervent and bustling. Seats were being plucked up in rows as people stretched their jacket sleeves across them, at which other audience members displayed their frustration. People spilled into the aisles until a theater representative had to announce that more screenings would be added and that the show had been oversold. Even still, few moved from their makeshift seats, until the very last minute, when a Buddhist prayer was given and the lights dimmed on one of the most powerful films in this year’s festival.
UCSB alumni, Santa Barbara residents and married couple, Tom and Sue Peosay assembled “Tibet” over more than a decade of traveling, interviewing, researching and compiling. Tom’s background lies in television cinematography while Sue is a graphic designer with a background in fine arts and Asian studies. Their travels took them to Tibet, India, Nepal and England and across the United States as they tried to amass more information on Tibetans’ struggles for freedom under Chinese occupation.
As locals, the film’s screening is a homecoming of sorts, especially considering that UCSB has one of the only Tibetan studies programs in the nation. What first started as a youthful exploration into an unknown country, turned into more than either would imagine.
“I graduated from UCSB in ’83 and Tom graduated in ’86. In winter of ’87 we went traveling to western Asia and met these two men who were literally like Cheech and Chong; these old hippies. They told us ‘Hey, the road to Tibet is open. Let’s go,’ and so we did. We had nothing else to do for three months. And that was it. It changed the course of our lives forever,” Sue said.
While taking in the astonishing beauty of the highly isolated country, the couple also felt the looming presence of being in a police state. It was not until returning back to the U.S. and hearing about the riots in Lhasa that the two decided to pool their efforts for a documentary. Over the next decade, Sue would travel to Tibet six times and Tom nine to interview torture victims, survivors of concentration camps and even the Dalai Lama himself.
When asked to pinpoint a specific moment during filmmaking that stuck out, both Sue and Tom agreed that meeting the Buddhist leader was almost overwhelming. “The Dalai Lama is just the apex of Tibetan culture really,” Sue said. “Just getting to sit down and chat with him was absolutely amazing.”
Several famous names lend their signature voices to the film, including Martin Sheen (narration), Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Ed Harris (voice-overs). The film is competing alongside six other documentaries for the 4th Annual Social Justice Award as well as in the documentary category.
The film is by no stretch astounding in all that it tackles, both visually and socially. The landscapes are incredible, as are the accounts of persecution by the Chinese on Tibetans who wish only to practice their religion and live independently in a country slowly pushing its own citizens away.
“My heart quickens just thinking about Tibet, standing on some mountaintop looking down,” Sue said.
As for the film’s present and future, things look promising. Several screenings have been added to the film festival, on top of undoubted acclaim by those lucky enough to see the film thus far. For Tom and Sue, it is truly the realization of years worth of wistful dreaming.
“It’s really been an amazing process,” Sue said. “There were a few moments there when we didn’t think it would see the light of day. The reception has been overwhelming.”
The two are hoping for a theatrical release in the near future, and possibly of selling the film to PBS, though Tom notes the hesitancy of certain media outlets to embrace such a film.
“You can’t hold it against advertisers for not wanting to get involved in too political a film,” Tom said. “But we’ll see. We’re waiting to hear.”