Last summer, child-custody attorney Denise Bohdan was burning out. For relief, a law school buddy suggested she raise money for a documentary his company was producing about life in Tibet under Chinese rule. The producer conceived the project in early 2008, and by that July had sent two documentarians to Tibet, neighboring regions of China, Nepal, and India. The resulting video, called State of Control, is set to be released in a few months. It was inspired by the work of Dhondup Wangchen, a Tibetan filmmaker who had already made a similar movie, Leaving Fear Behind, by the time the American documentarians arrived in Tibet. They tried to find Dhondup but soon discovered that Chinese officials had arrested him on March 26, 2008. He has been in jail ever since.
Leaving Fear Behind largely concerns the attitudes of Tibetans toward the Beijing Olympics, which in early 2008 were in the offing. Before his arrest, Dhondup was able to spirit his film out of Tibet and have it shown in Beijing prior to the games. In one of its scenes, a man complains that China promised to improve the lives of Tibetans in order to acquire the Olympics but reversed course as soon as it landed the games.
Denise Bohdan agreed to work on State of Control, which she characterizes as an attempt to “experience again Dhondup’s existence of being followed everywhere and harassed” while shooting 35 hours of video to make his documentary. Bohdan’s role grew and, “Soon,” she tells me in her Del Mar office, “I was poking my nose into everything related to State of Control.”
One woman the American documentarians had filmed begged them to tell the world how oppressive China’s presence in Tibet is. Another was Dhondup’s wife Lhamo Tso, then living in India, who implored them to find out where her husband was imprisoned. “The pleas were so heartrending,” says Bohdan, “how could we not?”
Thirty-nine-year-old Lhamo Tso so touched Bohdan and the filmmakers that they determined to bring her to the United States. And what better than a press conference in the Big Apple’s Times Square to present Dhondup’s story to the world? “Suddenly,” says Bohdan, “I’m lining up everything in New York, from hotel accommodations and permits to wiring and loudspeakers.”
The first consideration was a venue for the event. Bohdan called Sherwood Outdoor, a company that leases LED (light-emitting diode) signs on the walls at 2 Times Square. Coca-Cola has been the most famous client at the site since the 1930s. Bohdan says she spoke to a Sherwood employee about displaying an event that would highlight a free-speech issue in Tibet. “The man said it was too political.”
Later, Bohdan read a New York Times story critical of Sherwood last summer for having given the Chinese news agency Xinhua (pronounced Shin-wa) a multiyear lease for space above the Coca-Cola sign to advertise its news programming. The Chinese display is 64 feet high by 40 feet wide.
“Why couldn’t the guy at Sherwood just tell me they already rented to Xinhua?” asks Bohdan. Space on the wall at 2 Times Square was renting for $10,000 an hour, so putting Lhamo and a few other speakers up for two to three hours was out of the question. “But once we learned the whole situation, we decided to stage our event right under the Xinhua wall,” says Bohdan.
Bohdan also sought a nongovernmental organization to participate in the program. She reached out to Amnesty International in Boston and San Francisco, and they alerted San Diegan Jim Zimmerman, one of Amnesty’s China specialists. Zimmerman, 66, contacted Bohdan, saying that Amnesty already had Dhondup on its watch list, although only its Miami and Boston groups had adopted him as “their prisoner.” Zimmerman, who belongs to San Diego’s Amnesty Group 137, was able to work with the U.S. State Department to obtain a visa for Lhamo, who had been refused one once before. “At the last minute,” Zimmerman tells me, “she had to go twice to the U.S. Embassy in Delhi, which is quite a trip from where she lives in Dharamsala. Then they issued her visa, but it was for the wrong date. So we had to go through a long procedure with the State Department. And one thing they require is a letter of invitation to do the program for Amnesty International.”
On March 9, the press conference went off in front of the Xinhua wall. Through a translator, Lhamo Tso spoke to crowds passing by as a short trailer of her husband Dhondup’s documentary played repeatedly on a portable Jumbotron in the background. She was joined by several other speakers, while a “homeless-looking” man shouting Chinese slogans tried to disrupt the rally.
Lhamo later was able to extend her visa and embark on a tour of the U.S. and Canada. Eventually, she arrived in San Diego to speak at the downtown library and to do a meet-and-greet at Earth Day on April 22 in Balboa Park. Several days earlier, I had breakfast with Lhamo, Bohdan, and Zimmerman. Lhamo, wearing a long multicolored dress traditional in the province of her birth, told us of selling bread on the streets of Dharamsala and, earlier, butter on the streets of Lhasa, Tibet’s capital.
Before producing his documentary, Dhondup began sending his four children to India to get better educations. After his parents went too, Lhamo joined them, in 2006, to support the family. She expected her husband to follow, but the next she heard was that Dhondup had been arrested. Only his sister has been briefed on details of his situation, which include a case of hepatitis B.
In the week prior to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to China this spring, Bohdan and Zimmerman made calls to the State Department to ask that Dhondup’s imprisonment be brought up during the trip. “Based on the feedback, we smelled success only inches away. We want him released on a medical parole,” says Bohdan. Suddenly, blind activist Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest to the American Embassy in Beijing. “Dhondup’s case immediately went to the back burner.” ■