The Accidental Filmmaker, by Blake Kerr

Thirty years ago, my life took a tangential turn in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa when Chinese police fired on unarmed Tibetan men, women, children, and monks on China’s National Day.

On July 4, 1987, my climbing friend John Ackerly and I flew one-way to Hong Kong and traveled overland across China to the Tibetan side of Everest. The “granite in our brains” at Dartmouth College had propelled us to scour cliffs across the United States, spend seasons on Yosemite’s big walls, and to go mountaineering in Peru. Going to the Himalayas was the logical next step. 

After John graduated from American University’s law school in Washington, D.C., and I finished at the State University at Buffalo’s school of medicine, John agreed to go to Tibet on “one” condition: We could not take a tent, sleeping bags, or climbing gear. “We’ll travel with pilgrims and nomads,” John mused, “like explorers from previous centuries.” After John “Quixote” and I got to 22,000 feet in our sneakers, we hitchhiked back to Lhasa.

Just as we were starting to regain lost kilos and explore the Tibetan quarter, John photographed the largest independence demonstrations against Chinese rule since the Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959. When wounded Tibetans were taken from the People’s Hospital to prison, I sneaked out to treat people hiding in their homes and monasteries. In addition to Tibetans dying from gunshot wounds, blunt trauma, infections, and internal bleeding, I encountered the victims of torture, and something worse.

As I was cleaning the entrance and exit wounds through one man’s calf, I asked his wife, Tashi, if she had any children. It was clear from her expression that I had committed a faux pas. When she did speak, she recounted how the previous year her work unit leader noticed she was pregnant and told her to go to the People’s Hospital. Tashi was trying to hide her pregnancy because she did not have permission to have a child.

At the Lhasa People’s Hospital, a doctor gave an injection into her abdomen that made her go into labor. She heard her baby cry twice, once when his head presented in the birth canal. The last, and most traumatic, was when the doctor injected the soft spot of the boy’s forehead, killing him. The next day, Tashi was sterilized by tubal ligation before she went home.

A handful of overland travelers who had seen China’s brutal crackdown in Tibet tried to stay as long as they could to document a city under siege. Thousands of Chinese soldiers surrounded the Tibetan quarter of Lhasa and began house-to-house searches. Those who were wounded, or in possession of an image of the Dalai Lama, were dragged from their homes and taken to Drapchi Prison. Overland travelers were stripped of their film and herded onto buses.

When John and I landed in Katmandu and New Delhi, reporters asked why Tibetans had taken guns from Chinese police and shot Tibetans. When we described Chinese police firing into unarmed crowds, we were able to refute the Chinese propaganda at that time. We also learned that the Dalai Lama had invited us to Dharamsala, India, home to thriving Tibetan culture in exile.

The Dalai Lama was saddened to hear that Tibetan monks — who had dedicated their lives to nonviolence — had thrown rocks at Chinese soldiers. He also understood that this was a normal reaction to extreme stress.

His Holiness listened intently as John described his impressions of Lhasa before the riots: more Chinese immigrants than Tibetans, children not learning their own language in schools, and monks who said they were “workers in a museum.”

His Holiness peppered us with questions about everyone who was killed: “How many people were in the crowds?” “How many Tibetans worked for the police?” And “Did any Tibetan policeman shoot into the crowd?” 

When John gave His Holiness a handful of bullet casings, he laughed. “Some people bring me flowers. You bring me bullets!” Before we left, His Holiness admonished, “Do not hate the Chinese for what they are doing. The Chinese are good people. It is governments that make trouble.” 

In Washington, after addressing the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John and I published a dozen articles and reports on the underside of China’s military occupation of Tibet that were in no danger of becoming best sellers. We also accepted more than 100 invitations to address high schools, colleges, and human rights organizations across North America. At every large university after our slideshow ended, angry Chinese students (who had never been to Tibet) denounced us and said that Tibet was an “internal affair of China.” This was exactly what we had heard from the U.S. State Department.

Human rights investigations are inherently frustrating. It can take hours to interview someone before he or she feels comfortable talking about suffering experienced or inflicted. When John started working for the International Campaign for Tibet, and I did my residency at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City, we spent our free time interviewing Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal. This culminated in a report published by Physicians for Human Rights in 1989, “The Suppression of a People: Accounts of Torture and Imprisonment in Tibet.” One month after the report, while testifying before the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee, several congressmen queried, “How did you know who these people were?” “How did you know where they came from?” “How can you trust refugees?”

John and I had to agree. On-site information was much better than refugee accounts. For the remainder of the 1980s and 1990s, John and I returned separately seven times to Tibet to document the underside of China’s military occupation. John started photographing China’s prisons in Lhasa — Sangyip, Drapchi, Utitod, and Titdhu — and returned to labor camps in Xining, the Tang Karmo Valley, and China’s gulag in Qinghai. What he learned was shocking.

The primary purpose of torture is to extract information. Tortures include beatings with electric prods, suspensions, submersions, dogs, exposure to extreme temperatures, and malnutrition. Because Tibet has many different cultures and guards, there are a wide variety of tortures with no holds barred. The worst tortures are reserved for women, especially nuns, who are violated and raped with electric batons.

If a Tibetan prisoner cooperates with a Chinese interrogator, divulges “agents of the Dalai clique,” and proclaims that “Tibet is part of China,” he or she will be treated leniently. Suffering is prolonged as long as possible for prisoners who defy their captors. If these prisoners survive and are released, the debilitated shell of their former self is a warning to anyone who defies Chinese occupation.

On one trip to 20 People’s Hospitals in Lhasa and remote regions of Amdo and Kham in the 1990s, I documented dozens of coerced abortions and sterilizations, and confirmed 10 times that many. Until recently, China’s national family-planning policy allowed Chinese women in the mainland to have only one child, while minority women were allowed to have two children, but there were many restrictions. Tibetan women must be married and have permission from their work unit leader to have a first child, and wait four years before having a second child. 

There is a pressure continuum throughout Tibet. Women with unauthorized pregnancies who go to a People’s Hospital are at extreme risk for coerced abortion, sterilization, and, if the child is born, infanticide. Even if the family can afford to pay an exorbitant fine — often several years’ salary — the parents face demotion, and the unauthorized child will not get a ration card for basic food staples. Unauthorized children are not able to go to school, work, or travel.

As Chinese immigrants outnumber Tibetans in towns and cities, Tibetan Buddhism is suppressed, Tibetan children are not able to learn their own language in schools, and more Tibetan women are sterilized, I am afraid that China’s military occupation of Tibet is a slow, deliberate process of genocide.

In 2004, a small human rights organization in Spain — the Comite de Apoyo al Tibet — filed a lawsuit against Jiang Zemin, China’s past president and head of the People’s Liberation Army, and Li Peng, China’s past prime minister, for committing crimes against humanity in Tibet. Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, any country signatory to international treaties has a duty to bring charges against the perpetrators of crimes against humanity that are being committed in countries that do not have independent judiciaries. The Spanish National Court used this principle to have General Pinochet arrested in 1998 for committing crimes against humanity in Chile in the 1970s and 1980s.

China and the U.S. State Department thwarted my appearance before the Spanish National Court for seven years. When Judge Ismael Moreno heard my testimony in December 2011, he accepted 20 kilos of my written, audio, and video documentation taken inside Tibet, and provided money for its translation.

In February 2014, Judge Moreno submitted arrest warrants to Interpol for Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, and five other Chinese officials for committing genocide in Tibet. Five months later, when China pressured the Spanish government to overturn the national court’s finding, I made a documentary film from the footage submitted to that court as an offering to the court of world opinion.

On behalf of six million Tibetans living in Tibet, I want to thank the Madrid International Film Festival for giving “Eye of the Lammergeier” its world premiere on July 13. Buddha willing, the lammergeier will land in the Hamptons and beyond. If the tangential path has taught this accidental filmmaker anything, it is to never give up.


Blake Kerr, M.D., runs Wainscott Walk-In Medical Care. He lives in Water Mill.