'I Won't Regret to Die'

One filmmaker puts himself at risk by speaking out against China's government.

Aug. 15, 2008— -- As the Olympic flame flickers atop the Bird's Nest, foreigners with human rights torches of their own have chosen this moment to stage brazen protests.

Pro-Tibetan activists have entered China on tourist visas, knowing that the worst punishment they'll face is deportation. For Tibetans living in China, any protest calling for a free Tibet means almost certain jail time.

"China is a successful country and it's growing, but the people of China, they deserve the truth," said Pemba Yoko, a protester with Students for a Free Tibet.

And that truth, according to the group and many Tibetans who are living in exile, is that China is suppressing Tibetans' human rights and systematically extinguishing Tibetan culture, language and religion.

Olympics Serve as Platform for Protests

Tibet has been a mecca for tourists, with attractions like the dazzling Potala Palace in Lhasa, the capital. This year, images of Tibet in the media have been dominated by coverage of violent clashes between Tibetans and Chinese police.

That, in turn, has led to protestors interrupting the Olympic torch relays in several cities around the world, with Tibetans and supporters calling for the return of the Dalai Lama, the region's spiritual leader, to his homeland, where Chinese officials have banned him for decades.

But some Chinese citizens believe the protesters have it all wrong.

"I don't think they should do this," one woman said. "Tibet is already very free."

But few have heard from the people still living in Tibet.

'I Won't Regret to Die'

One of them is Dhondup Wangchen. The 34-year-old Tibetan amateur filmmaker has decided to show the outside world what he says nobody knows about his country. He shows rare footage of Tibetans speaking out about life under Chinese rule in a documentary filmed entirely by native Tibetans.

"We started gathering facts about the real opinions of the Tibetans inside Tibet, what they think about the 2008 Games," he said. "Whether they support His Holiness the Dalai Lama."

One monk says in the film that if the 2008 Olympic Games take place, they should stand for freedom and peace, but because he has neither, he says, he'd rather not have the Games there.

Even at the start of this project, Wangchen knew he was putting his life on the line.

"I won't regret to die on this soil since the reason why I died would be for the sake of all the Tibetans," he said.

But, as a precaution, he smuggled his wife and children out of the country and then smuggled himself back in with a camera. He'd never filmed anything before.

"I'm not satisfied with the filming," he said. "I've never touched a camera before and have no experience handling a camera."

With the help of three volunteers, Wangchen has traversed thousands of miles, often by motorbike, across cold and sometimes barren terrain. The team collected about 40 hours of interviews with Tibetans who spoke about life under Chinese rule.

"The main difficulties we faced in making this film were asking people to show their faces on camera, not being able to guarantee their safety, and to gain their consent," he said.

The Chinese government says that exiles don't really speak for Tibetans, but those featured in Wangchen's film say otherwise.

"Life is very hard, people don't see it," one interview subject said. "Lots of tourists come to Lhasa and the Chinese government sweet-talks them, showing them what they want to show."

Hoping for the Dalai Lama's Return

Another monk cried, saying that it was his greatest wish and dream for the Dalai Lama to return home, although it doesn't look like his dream will ever be realized.

"Many said that if I succeeded in offering it to His Holiness," he said, "then they won't regret even if they had to die. I also asked clearly about filming or not filming their faces."

One man said, "If the interview was to be seen by the Dalai Lama then I wouldn't' care even if I were killed. It would make me very happy if I could leave the Dalai Lama this message in the name of all other Tibetans."

Simple Acts, Big Punishments

The film documents simple acts of defiance like people displaying portraits of the Dalai Lama in their homes, an act strictly forbidden under Chinese law.

"If the government finds them they confiscate them," one man said, showing his portraits. "So we have to keep them secret. Otherwise they'll be taken away"

Even declaring support for a free Tibet is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

The project and ensuing journey have been difficult for Wangchen, as he struggled to focus on his mission and simply stay awake.

"I need to smoke a lot." he said. "Not being able to sleep sometimes, dire necessity to think a lot coupled with my loneliness compels me to light a cigarette very often. I have to stop it because I need to work for the Tibetan cause for few years and it's also a question of my personal health."

Tapes for the film were smuggled out of China to Europe, where friends completed the film and named it "Leaving Fear Behind." It was released on the Internet days prior to the Olympic opening ceremonies in Beijing. Chinese officials shut the site down there within hours.

Wangchen and one of his assistants, a Monk named Golog Jigme, have since been arrested by the Chinese government. Their exact whereabouts are unknown.

CLICK HERE to visit the official Web site for "Leaving Fear Behind."