The film opens with the memories of a journey to Tibet by two young American adventurers, who suddenly find themselves in the middle of Tibetan demonstrations against Chinese rule. Their riveting story is supported by interviews with Tibetan monks and nuns who participated in the demonstrations, accompanied by a powerful assemblage of images documenting the massacre and crackdown by Chinese forces. The heroic story of Jampa Tenzin, a monk who rescued prisoners from a burning police station, his subsequent capture, torture and death, leads to a prayer by the Dalai Lama, and sets the tone for the epic tale about to unfold: a story of struggle, courage, and compassion.
After the title, the audience is transported to the beginning of the story, the legendary "rooftop of the world" -- via spectacular footage of Tibet’s awe-inspiring landscape and timeless glimpses of Tibet’s unique culture. A brief introduction to Tibetan history dispels popular misconceptions that Tibet is a tiny mountain kingdom and that Tibet has always been a land of peace and tranquillity. Tibetan elders recollect the homeland of their youth. The foundations of Tibetan Buddhism are presented, lavishly illustrated with a wealth of stunning cinematography. These contemporary images support the point made by Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor that Tibetan traditions still endure in more remote areas of its homeland today, demonstrating that Tibetan culture is not yet lost.
Experts and witnesses discuss the history of Sino-Tibetan relations, and introduce the story of the current Dalai Lama. An archival view of the Dalai Lama’s former residence, the Potala, suddenly cuts to a modern view, and a barrage of arresting images from today’s Tibet: crowds of Chinese immigrants, destruction of historic Tibetan neighborhoods, soldiers, prostitutes. Interviews express the powerlessness Tibetans feel in the face of Chinese colonization masked as modernization and development. A Chinese government spokesman counters with Beijing’s official positions on Tibet, which leads to an overview of the current religious crackdown, all reinforced with rare visuals and interview testimony.
The camera follows pilgrims visiting Tibet’s holiest temple, moving from deep into the inner sanctum to the image of Tibet’s most revered statue of the Buddha, the Jowo. The sublime golden visage cuts to the stern faces of marching Chinese soldiers, as the storyline flashes back to the events which led to the current conflict in Tibet. The story of China’s "Peaceful Liberation of Tibet" in 1949 is vividly told by Robert Ford, an Englishman who was working in Tibet at the time, and was captured and imprisoned by the Chinese. The gulf between communist China and the religious devotion of Tibet adds to the mounting sense of tension, which builds with rarely seen Chinese propaganda films, including astonishing footage of the teenage Dalai Lama’s visit to Beijing and meetings with Mao Tse Tung. Mao’s last words to the Dalai Lama, that "religion is poison," presages the horrors about to befall Tibet.
Survivors of Chinese prisons and labor camps, the same elders who reminisced about the Tibet of their youth, describe their horrific experiences when China attempted to to erase Tibetan religion and resistance, and of the unimaginable suffering that befell Tibet and China during the Cultural Revolution. The story of the CIA’s support of the Tibetan resistance movement is told with bitter poignancy by those who were trained in the USA and fought a “secret war” for twenty years.
Images of Tibetan pilgrims in Nepal lighting butterlamps on a dark night evoke a feeling of hope in troubled times. The storyline changes gears to focus on the remarkable efforts of the Dalai Lama to preserve and promote in exile what remains of Tibetan culture, and to lead a non-violent struggle for justice. Today, thousands of Tibetans each year continue to make the perilous escape from their homeland, their journeys illustrated by rare footage of refugees crossing Himalayan passes and arriving, frostbitten and exhausted in Dharamsala, Northern India. The lack of education or monastic opportunities in Tibet is a major force driving Tibetans into exile today, a point emotionally articulated by the former headmaster of a Tibetan school in India. A Chinese official counters that conditions in Tibet have only improved under Chinese rule, his words accompanied by surreal images from a Chinese-organized festival high on the Tibetan plateau, a view of Tibet rarely seen by outsiders.
The story flashes back to the death of Mao Tse Tung, and crowds of weeping, grief-stricken Chinese citizens. Under Mao’s rule, Tibet had been sealed off from the outside world for 25 years. After his death, Tibetan hopes for a better future were fueled when an exile delegation was permitted to return to their homeland in preparation for discussions with the new Chinese government. But the scenes of weeping, grief-stricken crowds are repeated, this time in Tibet, as Tibetans implore the delegates to tell the Dalai Lama of their suffering during decades of hidden holocaust.
The outpouring of emotion in Tibet was a shock to the Chinese government in Beijing, which thought their Tibet problem was all but eradicated. Diplomatic ties with the Tibetan exiles were severed, and the Dalai Lama was compelled to turn to the outside world for help. Here the Dalai Lama explains the philosophy of compassion that has sustained the Tibetans through incredible hardship, a philosophy which offers hope not only to Tibetans in their struggle, but has inspired leaders and ordinary people alike the world over. The Dalai Lama’s "Five Point Peace Plan" helped elevate the Tibetan issue to a matter of global concern, by proposing a demilitarized “Zone of Peace” in the strategic heart of Asia. Although a Chinese official denounces the Dalai Lama’s efforts, it is a moving moment of triumph when the Dalai Lama accepts the Nobel Peace Prize.
An amazing sequence of images shows hundreds of thousands of Tibetans celebrating a religious ritual ("Kalachakra" or "Wheel of Time" teachings) led by the Dalai Lama in exile. But the feeling of victory is short-lived. Scenes of monks joyously running to serve tea at the services in India are replaced by deeply disturbing images of monks running for their lives from Chinese storm-troopers during demonstrations that erupted as tensions escalated in Tibet after the Nobel award. What follows is perhaps the most emotionally painful portion of the film, as smuggled Chinese police tapes capture the brutal beatings of monks in Tibet’s holiest temple, and nuns describe being sexually violated with electric cattle prods after their arrest.
Distress is transformed to dignity as the visual cuts to crowds of nuns demonstrating in exile, expressing freely the desires which led to unspeakable brutality in their homeland. Again, the motif of butterlamps flickering in the darkness leads the audience toward light, as interviews articulate the beliefs that have prevented Tibetans from being consumed by hatred and defeat. The story of Palden Gyatso, who appears throughout the film, powerfully illustrates the irrepressible spirit of so many Tibetan torture survivors. His astounding feat of obtaining torture implements and escape to exile, determined to tell the world what is happening in Tibet, brings this emotional climax of the film full circle.
The Dalai Lama returns with an eloquent statement about the importance of human rights, which cuts to images of more demonstrations --- with a surprising twist --- this time in China’s Tienanmen Square. Here a remarkable case is made for the common suffering and desires shared by both Chinese and Tibetans --- a bridge of hope between the two cultures. Beijing’s justification for its brutality against both Chinese and Tibetans is revealed: fear of a Soviet-style breakup of the world’s most populous nation, a nation with tremendous global economic influence.
Now the story shifts to western complicity in the oppression of Tibet. China’s importance to the world economy has silenced most western opposition to the human rights violations taking place.
The wailing of a scantily clad Chinese nightclub singer abruptly brings the audience back to Tibet. China’s "final solution" for Tibet --- colonization and assimilation --- is at last being accomplished, not through military force, but as a result of the massive population transfer of Chinese into Tibet -- paid for, in part, by China’s huge economic gains. An impressive series of documentary imagery details the effects of the accelerating Chinese assimilation of Tibet, culminating with the outrageous and tragic story of the disappearance of the young Panchen Lama.
Focus turns to the desperation felt by Tibetans, who, despite trying to maintain a moral high road in their struggle, see their culture disappearing with no concrete international support for their cause. The potential for Tibet to become the next Bosnia or Palestine is discussed, as the desperation borne of fifty years of Chinese repression explodes in the shocking footage of a Tibetan monk’s unprecedented self-immolation in India.
Intimate scenes of Buddhist ritual, of the completion and destruction of an intricate sand mandala, transform the morass of desperation. The Dalai Lama points out that many Chinese are now expressing support for Tibet, as evidenced by remarkable footage of tens of thousands of Chinese who recently attended his teachings in Taiwan.
A final, fervent plea by the Dalai Lama is answered by the chanting of "Free Tibet! Free Tibet!" which cuts to a frenzied mosh pit at the Tibet Freedom Concert in San Francisco. The tensions and emotions which have mounted throughout the film are suddenly released in a heady rush of pure musical and visual energy. Many of the Tibetan elders whose stories have been woven throughout the film reappear to speak before cheering crowds. Robert Thurman, a prominently featured Buddhist scholar in the film, passionately makes the case that the Tibetan cause is neither impossible nor hopeless.
The exuberant climax calms in the last minutes of the film, as a parade of breathtaking images reinforces the final stirring message of hope from Tibetan intellectual Lhasang Tsering: "We want to be counted among ordinary human beings who only seek ordinary human rights. The right of all people to be free to determine their future. There will be problems in Tibet, but we will solve them in our own way; and we will not be enemies with China --- we could even be friends."