Nick Gray, the author, is a television producer who has been making award-winning documentaries for over 30 years. He was able to present a DVD of his film Escape From Tibet to His Holiness The Dalai Lama. He is Visiting Professor of Documentary Production at Lincoln University.
HERE HE DESCRIBES HOW A CHANCE MEETING ON A MOUNTAIN STARTED OFF HIS FRIENDSHIP WITH PASANG AND TENZIN:
I wanted to make a programme about the Chinese oppression of Tibetans: but there was a problem. At the time it was impossible for us to take a film crew into Tibet and film witnesses. The Chinese authorities have placed a strict ban on such projects. Furthermore if we entered the country undercover and filmed secretly, when the programme was shown on TV, the lives and freedom of people we interviewed would be endangered. They could be imprisoned, forced into exile, or even executed. But during my research I heard a story about the thousands of Tibetan refugees who annually escape from Chinese oppression by climbing over the highest mountain range in the world, on a journey through Nepal to India with the prospect of meeting their exiled and revered leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This had never been filmed before. So I developed the - risky – scenario in which we would meet a group of refugees on the border between Tibet and Nepal, and follow them as best we could through to their final destination. When the refugees were safe, we would film the background to their stories undercover in Tibet. We took the idea to ITV’s Commissioning Editor, who showed interest in the story but detected the flaw in the project: “Who will be in the film? Whose journey will you follow? How will you find and select them? Will any show up?”
Undaunted, I pointed out that although we had no idea who would be the main characters in the programme, our best information was that groups of refugees come regularly over the high passes near Mount Everest, that they risk death from exposure and frostbite, and that at least one third of the refugees are children whose parents wanted a better life for them outside their own country. The Commissioning Editor was enthused by the images the story conjured up, and gave us the go-ahead – and the finance – to make a flagship ITV documentary. So the crew, researcher and myself flew to India immediately before he could change his mind.
We had been advised to obtain the consent of the Office of the Dalai Lama in India before proceeding with the project, which was granted on condition that we protect the refugees we film from reprisals by the Chinese authorities. We must change their names and disguise their backgrounds. Armed with the written consent of the Office of the Dalai Lama, we met a group of refugees, and followed with great difficulty their journey to freedom. Among the group were the young brothers Pasang and Tenzin. With the twists and turns of fortune in their own story, and the wide, appealing face of 11-year-old Tenzin, the brothers became the focus of the film.
When the documentary Escape From Tibet was shown on television, it made an immediate impact. We received hundreds of letters from viewers, and the film had special screenings for the Foreign Office, the United Nations, the State Department, the White House, and was shown in many countries around the world, though not of course in China. Several viewers offered help to the brothers, and sponsors came forward to pay for Pasang and Tenzin to visit England to learn English. I went to India to help with their visas and travel arrangements. It was wonderful to see their joy when they flew in an airplane for the first time, and witness their arrival in the West.
They now live in London, sending home money to help their family in Tibet. Their freedom from the long arm of Chinese oppression was assured when the British government granted them first the Right to Remain as Victims of Torture, and after five years, full British citizenship. Over the last few years, the three of us have maintained a steady friendship, during which they have told me many more details of their remarkable story. Only now are they willing for this story to be told in book form, an authentic record of what refugees, even though children, will attempt in order to achieve freedom from oppression.
Recently I travelled to the remote part of northern Tibet where the brothers were born and brought up. I was able to stay with the family, and hear at first hand the testimony of their mother, a remarkably resilient character. Photographs of the house and surrounding countryside are featured in the book.
In Escape From Tibet I have attempted to tell the story from the point of view of the two brothers: to describe their struggle and fight for freedom from their personal perspective. I hope that their unique experience can help people understand the many dangers that face refugees from Tibet in their quest to find freedom.
© Nick Gray, February 2012