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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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A Look at Tibetan Life

Nov. 10, 2015

The documentary "Nowhere to Call Home: A Tibetan in Beijing" is attracting attention worldwide. Over 6 million Tibetans live in China's Tibet Autonomous Region and 4 adjacent provinces. Chinese government authorities tightened control over Tibetan religious activities after clashes between monks and police in the region erupted into violence in 2008.

Some Tibetans have burned themselves alive, apparently to protest what they see as China’s suppression of Tibet's religion and culture. Foreign media access to the area is highly restricted, and little gets reported about the lives of Tibetan people. US filmmaker and journalist Jocelyn Ford brings to light the little-known aspects of everyday Tibetan life.

Jocelyn Ford has lived in China for almost 15 years. One day several years ago, she crossed paths with a Tibetan woman in Beijing.

The woman, Zanta, had moved to the city with her 7-year-old son after her husband died. She had come to find work and was selling handicrafts on the street. Ford followed her closely for the next 3 years.

Ford explains, "In China, it is very difficult for foreign correspondents to get access to Tibetans and Tibetan areas, and so when I saw a lot of Tibetans selling jewelry on the streets of Beijing, I wondered why and I wondered if I could not learn about Tibetans from them."

Through her lens, Ford witnessed numerous examples of discrimination against Tibetans.

A Chinese woman approached Zanta while she was selling handicrafts on the street and shouted at her. "You want me to report you to the station manager? Do you want me to turn you in?" she said.

Even when applying for a job as a cleaning woman, Zanta came up against bigotry. Staff looked at each other. "Is she Tibetan?" they asked. "Look at what you're wearing! That skirt shows you're not ready to work," one of them said to her.

Zanta says she sensed they hate Tibetans. "I have such bad fate in this lifetime," she says, crying. "I've never hurt anybody." Her son urges her not to cry.

Massive rioting in the Tibet Autonomous Region in 2008 caused many Chinese to take an even harsher view of Tibetans.

Ford says, "The anger and especially the state media in China, the approach that they took to vilifying all Tibetans really affected Zanta's life and the lives of other Tibetans who had nothing to do with the riots."

"The media is controlled by the government and basically says one-sided propaganda: 'We give them a lot of money, we take care of them.' So most Chinese don't understand why the Tibetans are unhappy," she explains.

Simply finding a place to live isn't easy. Zanta gets turned down for being Tibetan. A landlord called the police on her when negotiations turned bad.

"I wouldn't be here if the manager hadn't said I could rent," Zanta told police. "Chinese bully Tibetans." The police officers respond that they can't solve the problem if she keeps talking like that.

"The landlords say police tell them not to rent to us Tibetans," Zanta says. "People here say we are 'Chinese,' then make us feel like unwanted outsiders."

Zanta suffers from discrimination against Tibetans in Beijing. But even in her home town, she faces sexual discrimination. She says many people in her village still believe men are naturally superior to women, and many men resort to violence to control the women.

"We have a saying, 'Women aren't worth a penny'," Zanta explains. "Our men are ferocious. If a woman misspeaks, they belt her."

Zanta can't expect protection even from her own father-in-law. He tries to intimidate Zanta in order to take away her son.

Her son refuses to go and see the father-in-law. "Last time, you hit me," he says. "You didn't let me go home."

"If you don't come, I can do terrible things," the father-in-law responds. "I'll beat you to a pulp."

Ford says, "When I started making this film, I had no idea about the status of women in Tibetan society, and when I discovered that, it became more important for me to do my best with this piece to raise awareness that this issue needs a lot of attention in Tibet."

Zanta decided to break with her husband's family. She says Beijing is the only place in China where she and her son can survive on their own.

She wants her son to make good in Beijing. She hopes then he can return to the village and change it.

"When my boy grows up, I want him to return to poor Tibetan villages," Zanta says. "I want him to convince other families education is important. If he does this, his next life will be better than this one."

Ford says, "If people can realize what the government propaganda is and what the reality is, and what it feels like to be discriminated against and whether they would want to be treated that way, I think there is a lot of progress that can be made."

"I think there are universal issues of our day of migration and of getting along with people from different backgrounds, cultures, religions. All societies need to learn to deal with this better and I hope my film helps people think about that," she says.

China's strict censorship rules draw the curtain over most foreign movies about Tibet. But Chinese authorities do not consider Ford's film political, so they've allowed it to be shown at universities and other venues throughout the country.

The film won an award at the Japan Prize-- an international competition for educational media -- last month. It's being shown in many parts of the world and is said to be getting a lot of attention.