Social Justice - 'They burn to get their message out'

25th October 2013 at 01:00
Student film on self-immolators in Tibet receives global acclaim

The red handprints snake upwards, across the boy's midriff. Then they become flames, licking at his collarbone and neck.

Next, writing appears in stop-motion on a girl's face. Word by word, the sentence "Since 2011, there have been 120 self-immolations in Tibet" creeps across her shoulder, neck and cheek.

The two-minute film, drawing attention to Tibetans who set themselves on fire to protest against the Chinese government, has now been broadcast on national American television and - that ultimate accolade for all things Tibet-related - has been championed by Hollywood actor Richard Gere.

Originally, however, the film was simply a school project.

Every September, students at the private UWC Atlantic College in South Wales hold a three-day social justice conference. Each year they are asked to produce 20-minute presentations highlighting different social injustices.

In the past, students have given presentations on female genital mutilation, child trafficking and sex workers. "They write poems, they sing songs, they write little vignettes," said Julian Jones, head of social justice at the college. "And, in this case, they made a video."

The suggestion to highlight Tibetan self-immolation came from 16-year-old student Tsering Say. The issue is one that resonates personally with her: a year ago, her uncle set himself alight in Tibet.

"It was really hard for all of us," Tsering said. "Self-immolation is the most radical form of protest imaginable. But I think a lot of Tibetans feel that Tibet is in such a state that they can no longer live there. They have to burn themselves to get their message out."

The students chose to present the facts starkly, in stop-motion letters marker-penned across models' bodies. At one point, the names and ages of some of the 24 self-immolators under the age of 18 appear on a girl's hands. "Dorjee, 15," one reads. The girl is not much older than this herself. Seconds later, the words have changed: "This could be you."

Since then, the video has gone viral. Students at the college, who come from more than 90 countries, forwarded it to family and friends, and linked to it on social media websites. Tsering's father, who has a Tibetan-language programme on the US channel Voice of America, showed it to his viewers.

The film was also circulated by the International Campaign for Tibet. As a result, it was drawn to the attention of Gere, a longtime campaigner for a free Tibet. The actor sent the students a photograph of himself watching the film. "That made me feel awesome, I love Pretty Woman," Tsering said.

"Some of the images of young people who have self-immolated in Tibet are too graphic to be shown on mainstream news," said Kate Saunders, from the International Campaign for Tibet. "The students are trying to compel us to confront what's happening in a different way.

"They're using their own bodies to communicate an action of sacrifice that's almost impossible for us to comprehend."

The film ends with a call to viewers to "think and act". "The first step to justice is paying attention," Tsering said. "You can volunteer with pro-Tibetan organisations, or attend protests for Tibet, or help lobby for issues pertaining to Tibet."

Watch the film at www.tesconnect.comtibetvideo


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