Dark Red Forest begs the question, for whom is this film made? Is it for both Chinese and Western audiences to cling to a naive idea about the spiritual purity of Tibetan highlands? Or is this a subtle critique of the Chinese régime as it eagerly tries to infantilize a neighbouring culture? Jin Huaqing’s cinematography is a beautiful visual presentation which romanticizes the life of a cloister of Tibetan nuns living under the Chinese totalitarian régime. Yet, most reviews and even the director claim this is a spiritual or philosophical documentary. One wonders how is it possible to shoot a spiritual film about one of the most politically repressed nations and its equally persecuted religious institutions without inviting the problem of this repression into the discussion?
Childish Tibetan nuns
The documentary is visually attractive and astonishing for those who have not experienced the harsh Tibetan climate. The first half is awe-inspiring and focuses on elemental detail. Nuns are captured attending religious gatherings, cooking, eating together, visiting the doctor, their gurus (in Tibetan lama), or practising meditation. During these monastic scenes, the audience can, for instance, see a nun drawing a picture of Buddha while listening to a sermon; another is sleeping or licking a bowl after a common lunch, and, by the end of the movie, a nun is seen squatting, probably peeing. Many other scenes create an unrelated visual chain of events where the nuns are depicted as simple, docile, and childlike.
As the director argues, he intended to depict the Tibetan nuns‘ lived spirituality uninterrupted in their natural setting. But any self-aware viewer understands that observation changes the reality of what is being observed. So, the result may make one think whether it is a mere attempt to bring us closer to the film’s subject or make it feel grotesque and childish.
The Tibetans are often condescended to in the film, even by their religious leaders. For example, during a visit to their lama, one nun reports that a man is seriously ill due to killing a brown bear for medicine. This act is explained to have insulted the local mountain deity, ultimately deemed responsible for the man’s death. The lama instructs him to pray, erects prayer flags, and gives a sermon against this type of hunting. «#Buddhism isn‘t preached there yet?… No wonder there is such barbarism. I have heard that in some areas of Tibet, brown bears are killed to make medicine. Tibetans should live on just yaks and sheep». Ultimately the incident depicts Tibetans as backward and barbaric.
The documentary is visually attractive and astonishing for those of us who have not experienced the harsh Tibetan realities.
We do not speak about cutting the dark forests in China
There is much that Huaqing shows in Dark Red Forest. Yet, there is even more that he does not show or remains silent about altogether. For example, the nuns are depicted as living entirely outside of the wider society, even though, in reality, Buddhist communities exist alongside both laymen and laywomen. Commonly, those residing in celibacy in monasteries have vital connections with their families – that means other Tibetans who the director wholly neglects. In the movie, we do not encounter any male figures at all.
The director also disregards that over the decades, Larung Gar became one of the most prominent Tibetan Buddhist academies in the world after its founding approximately 40 years ago. This important Buddhist site used to be a home of somewhere between 10,000 to 40,000 people, including monks, but mostly nuns and female students of Buddhism from various countries. Also, the Larung Gar’s religious teachers have millions of followers all over the globe, including China itself, which is one of the reasons why the Buddhists are a thorn in the régime‘s side.
Overall, the documentary leaves an impression that the nuns more or less live purely spiritual lives. However, their lives are actually lived in the oppressive social and political reality of the People’s Republic of China. This fact is silently exemplified in the footage of propagandistic banners campaigning for «national unity» and urging people to «write a new chapter of harmonious development».
These slogans speak of ongoing Chinese repression and were visible in 2019 when Chinese bulldozers tore down a significant part of the Larung Gar encampment as a crackdown on the Buddist institution to make space for more Chinese tourism. However, the documentary informs us that: «The government has informed most nuns that they must leave the Yarchen Monastery by the summer», and afterwards, «By summer 2019, most nuns returned home». Thus Huaqing has narrated the sad fate of a famous Buddhist cloister, where thousands have endured forced removals, many ending up in patriotic re-education camps.
Over romanticised ideas about Tibet and Buddhism
All in all, the documentary leaves too many blank spaces that echo the present Chinese state’s propaganda that sees Buddhism and cultural diversity as a threat while simultaneously depicting a simplified romantic view of Tibetan society and Buddhism. These blank spaces remain filled with an unuttered question – should I, as a viewer, maintain my idealism concerning the spiritual purity of Buddhism represented here by religiously devoted Tibetan nuns? I believe that this is precisely what is expected of me. China has been vitally involved in such romanticization of its «ethnic minorities» living in its marginal territories for decades.
The documentary gives much room to the representation of peaceful nuns practising Tibetan Buddhism and avoids speaking about the oppressive Chinese régime and its gender-based violence. I admit that the director could not mention the political reality of contemporary China, for which he could be imprisoned and harassed by the authorities. Still, many viewers may not be acquainted with this context. For those unfamiliar with the status of minorities in contemporary China, it might be challenging to critically evaluate what this documentary is trying to imply. For a more coherent picture concerning contemporary Buddhism under the Chinese régime, see the documentary Tibet, the Path to Wisdom by Hamid Sardar, where the main protagonist is an itinerant female Buddhist. While in Lhasa, she comments: «Westerners still like to imagine Lhasa as a spiritual place, but today, the kingdom of Buddha is more like a schoolyard than a place of meditation» (8:29-8:42). I believe that this statement is true in many parts of today’s China.
Dark Red Forest is a film for Chinese tourists and other consumers looking for a prepackaged holiday. Indeed, it seems incredible that anyone can accept such a simplified and romantic reality. Therefore, by romantically depicting the Tibetan monastic experience under the Chinese régime, Jin Huaqing euphemizes too much and asks us to participate in this endeavour passively. One can only wonder how the director feels about the final cut of Dark Red Forest and whether Huaqing is comfortable with its subtext or is he satisfied with its beautiful play of visual surfaces?
The author would like to thank anthropologist and Tibetologist Anna Sehnalova for her valuable insight into contemporary Tibetan society.