It was a dusty but deliciously warm May Day in Beijing. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City were so packed with Chinese tourists making the most of the holiday that it was impossible to move. I was thankful to escape the crowds in one of the world’s cheapest taxi rides back to the airport with a very precious cargo. Would I make it unscathed through customs and onto the flight to Heathrow and safety?
To say producing A Year in Tibet was a marathon, I think, is something of an understatement. It all started what seems like a very long time ago now, back in the summer of 2003, when Peter Firstbrook and I were approached by a Chinese producer in London who wanted to embark on a joint venture to turn some of his footage, shot in Tibet, into a TV series the world might be interested in seeing. What he showed us was extraordinary material – beautifully shot images of people and places – but that was really it. Where were the characters? What were their stories? What was going on in their lives? What does it mean to be Tibetan in a country that has, since 1952, been part of the Peoples’ Republic of China? So many questions, and in our minds no answers.
Peter’s last foray into Tibet had been to make Lost on Everest, to date the largest-grossing single documentary ever distributed by BBC Worldwide. The only way for us to begin to answer our questions was to get into Tibet ourselves and make our own TV series.
So, how to get access to a country where most of the population lives at an altitude of 5,000 meters and higher, which is under constant scrutiny by the Chinese authorities, and still be able to observe its people, its culture and its way of life in a manner that would not attract the unwanted attention of the Ministry of Propaganda?
What followed was nearly three years of protracted negotiation and discreet dealings. Access at the highest levels and of the quality we wanted and needed was finally secured by the writer Sun Shuyun, who had previously worked on access for a couple of films in China for the BBC and was now going to direct all the location filming. She spent more than a year eliciting the support of the head of the Tibetology Centre in Beijing whereby Sevenstones Media entered into a deal with a Chinese production company to work with our team of Chinese and Tibetan cameramen and production personnel, effectively as a ‘Chinese’ production unit. Convoluted as it may sound, but having spent most of my professional life making docs with indigenous filmmakers in some of the most challenging places on Earth, I knew that so long as we could keep the authorities at arms length, what I could expect to see in the rushes would be amazing.
We finally started shooting in July 2006. Peter made a few trips to Tibet in his official position with the Chinese as a ‘consultant’ that summer and autumn and worked with Shu on identifying a cast of characters from the small town of Gyantse, about a five-hour drive from the capital Lhasa, and surrounding villages.
Leaving Shu and her team alone to film without the presence of foreign filmmakers was going to be a huge risk. There isn’t a culture of observational documentary story-telling in China in the form that a British audience is familiar with. But Shu was able to take on a couple of very talented Chinese and Tibetan cameramen who could shoot beautifully and were willing to embrace a different way of working, shooting on the latest JVC HDV cameras, often alone or with an assistant helping on sound. Although Microsoft does have some Tibetan software, our translators could only type in Chinese so all the rushes were transcribed first into Mandarin and then into English.
Shipping footage was one of our biggest headaches. For the first six months of filming, regular travelers would bring carrier bags full of rushes into Heathrow, principally to avoid the inevitable time-consuming bureaucracy of Chinese customs. Many were the times Peter or I would rendezvous with our couriers to receive our priceless rushes in the foyer of an airport hotel.
But with the New Year came the shocking news that a Chinese traveler had been detained at Beijing airport with incriminating material destined for the us. We didn’t want to compromise anyone in China, which meant that yours truly would have to run the gauntlet of Chinese security if we were to be able to continue editing. Which brings me back to that trip to the airport in Beijing. My precious cargo was 200 hours of rushes. Everything was being X-rayed at check-in, so my fear was that an observant clerk might wonder about the contents of my case. As it turned out, the Chinese authorities weren’t the remotest bit interested in what I was carrying and even British Airways didn’t manage to lose the precious cargo.
Now, with all the rushes safely back in the UK, Peter, working with the brilliant editor Sue Haycock, is coming to the end of a 60-week post-production schedule and has created something I believe is quite extraordinary. The quality of access achieved by the Chinese and Tibetan crew is truly unprecedented. No Chinese, let alone Western filmmakers, have ever observed with such intimacy the extraordinary daily lives of ordinary people in the visually stunning Tibet. Our characters have to live with the reality of being an autonomous region of China, whether they like it or not. Yet their Buddhist beliefs and Shamanistic traditions and the fatalism with which they treat the hand that life has dealt them gives them an amazing ability to focus on the things that really matter to them – the importance of family, health, education, wealth and ambition are as a mirror held up to ourselves. The modernizing pressure on Tibetan society and the clash between the old and the new don’t take away from Tibetans’ extraordinary sense of fun, their pragmatism, their deep religious conviction and their approach to life.