China's Other Face Revealed

With the eyes of the world focused on the lavish opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, first-time filmmaker Makoto Sasa would like those eyes to see a much different face of China in her documentary, "Fire Under the Snow."

"Fire Under the Snow" movingly chronicles the life of Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who survived 33 years of torture and imprisonment by Chinese authorities. The documentary -- shot in Tibet, Italy and India, where Gyatso now lives -- opened Friday, and its timing with the Olympics is more serendipitous than intentional. The film is part of DocuWeek in New York now, to be followed by a run in Los Angeles starting Aug. 22.

And while Sasa, who grew up in Tokyo and now lives in New York City, would like her film "to really tell people what's happening inside China, to not forget about the human rights situation," her original motivation for making the film was largely personal.

As a young girl, "I was very interested in Tibetan Buddhism," she told ABCNews.com. "I was born a Buddhist, but I never really knew what it meant. Although in Japan you do have some really strict monasteries, the monks we know from funerals and family gatherings drive Mercedes Benz's, they have wives, they're smoking cigarettes."

One night, on Japanese TV, she "saw some lay Tibetan people, not monks, in the act of prostration. As you say prayers and walk, you throw your body on the ground." The act, to Sasa, was "pure" and "divine."

"That gave me the sense of giving up your ego, and that was when I understood what Buddhism is really about," continued Sasa, who's now 35. "That image was, how do you say it in English? My 'Aha!' moment."

Fast forward to college, in Japan: "I heard the story about this monk who was in prison under the Chinese government," said Sasa, "and I couldn't believe anybody could survive 33 years of torture and imprisonment. I came from a country where after the war, everything kind of settled. My parents' generation built up everything; people were living peacefully."

Fast forward again, to New York, where Sasa was studying filmmaking and media studies (after nixing architecture, because she "couldn't deal with physics"). "I didn't speak English, I didn't have friends, I was lonely," she said. "And I always remembered the monk's story."

And when she read Palden Gyatso's autobiography, "Fire Under the Snow: Testimony of a Tibetan Monk," "I couldn't sleep. Within three months, I was there."

That was in February 2005, and "there" meant "a small room" in Dharamsala, India, not far from the Dalai Lama's palace (Gyatso had fled Tibet, an arduous 20-day walk over the Himalayas, in 1992).

"As soon as he came to the door, I started crying," said Sasa. "I told him, 'I want to thank you for surviving, and for being an inspiration for my life.'"

The film includes interviews with Gyatsa, now 77, and Tibetan activists and experts. Archival footage provides a brief history of China's relationship with Tibet, beginning with the Chinese invasion in 1950, and its crackdown in 1959 following an anti-Chinese and anti-Communist uprising in Lhasa.

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