by Amanda N. Nanawa
The summer of 1996 was a banner one for the music industry. Some
musicians did more than go on tour promoting their latest releases, some
used their popularity to their advantage, shedding light on issues such
as human rights. In a decade where packaged tours and travelling
caravans of musicians ruled the summer, there was one tour that stood
out — the Tibetan Freedom Concert. Britain’s New Music Express (NME)
called it “The best gig in the world. . . Ever.” The two-day event
(June 15-16, 1998) attracted over 100,000 spectators to San Francisco’s
Golden Gate Park, along with a handful of filmmakers who made their
way to the Bay Area, cameras in hand, armed and ready to shoot a
documentary called, “Free Tibet“.
Although the film credits Sarah Pirozek as the director of the feature
length doc, she insists, “I would never say ‘a film by Sarah Pirozek’. It’s
not a film by me. It’s a film by every single person who was involved with
the project. Really, it should say ‘Mother Henned by me’ or ‘organized by me’.”
Formerly a student of St. Martins School of Fine Art in London and a
recipient of various awards for her work in commercials and short films,
Pirozek was referred to Adam Yauch (Beastie Boys and co-executive
producer of “Free Tibet”) and the Milarepa Fund. Based in San Francisco,
Milarepa was started in May of1994 by Yauch and Erin Potts.
Coming from a humble beginning, the film project started as a PSA campaign
for the Students For a Free Tibet organization. The band A Tribe Called
Quest was featured in the PSA which was to air on MTV before the
concert. Yauch liked it so much that he and the Milarepa Fund asked
Pirozek to fly out to San Francisco to film the concert and do an
educational video. Seed money to start the PSA came from various
sources such as the Milarepa Fund, royalties from the Beastie Boys album
“Ill Communication”, and the 1995 Beastie Boys tour where, “we received
one dollar on every ticket sold in North America,” explains Potts.
The undertaking was more than what Pirozek bargained for. Having little
previous knowledge of the situation in Tibet and its history, the
project evolved into a learning process where, “I was asking questions
like: Where’s Tibet? What is China’s relationship to Tibet? Why (are)
Tibetans different from the Chinese people? Legal situation in Tibet?
Government control? Freedom?,” Pirozek explains. “The traditional
documentary — unless you’re like Wiseman — are one point-of-view,
funded, scripted, (and) budgeted. People go out, shoot what they need and
come back; and usually don’t do many pick-ups, if any, afterwards. Whereas
this film was like, ‘let’s go out and see what we find, and then let’s make it
into something’. Where there are holes — which were huge holes — then we’ll
fill them in.”
“They put together this sort of hodge podge of people from local
cameramen in San Francisco to Roman Coppola, who came up from L.A., to
Spike Jonze,” Pirozek offers, “And I felt like General Patton, ‘Okay. You film
the kids sneaking in over the fence. You go out and film the mosh pit.’ — This
intern was in the mosh pit with a hi-8 camera shooting moshing and
stuff.” The fillmmaker adds, “People talk about guerilla filmmaking. This
was the ultimate in guerilla filmmaking. It was very free form filmmaking.
It was really crazy. I did not see the dailies the next day, like, I had to kinda
hold it all in my head.” Among the formats included are super-8, hi-8 and
digital video, 16mm sound sync and footage from MTV and CNN.
Pirozek continues, “So we got back and I started screening the footage.
We were getting a lot of stock footage, research on the history of
Tibet. I felt really how rich the subject was and it really needed more
than a half hour or twenty minute educational video. And I proposed to
them that we do a feature length film. We had over 300 hours of footage
in the end.”
With that exorbitant amount of footage to work with, they needed
extraordinary help in post. Attorney John Sloss was approached with the
project and offered to work pro bono as the film’s legal and producer’s
rep. A representative from Sloss Law Office told indieWIRE that they’re
doing pro bono work because of their belief in the project and in the
people involved. Associate Producer Christopher Covert introduced the
project to Mammoth Records President Jay Faires who provided finishing
funds for post production. Faires, who is no stranger to indie film
producing, would add “Free Tibet” to his co-producing credits. Under
Mammoth Pictures, he was able to fund “100 Proof”, which he describes
as a “Southern Gothic film”, produced by George Maranville and directed
by Jeremy Horton.
Covert, who was involved with the Surfrider Foundation in the early part
of the nineties, was an old friend of Milarepa Fund co-founder Erin
Potts. They caught up with one another at the ’94 Lollapallooza show
where it was the first year Milarepa Fund was represented at the
travelling festival. As the two struck a conversation about Tibet,
Covert responded to the opportunity of helping the organization. Various
sources have described his involvement with “Free Tibet” as “very
instrumental” where he has seen the project from its stages of
pre-production to its current state, looking for the right distributor.
The final cut of the film is an eye opener. With Tibet’s historical stock footage
nicely edited with the interviews and concert performances, “Free Tibet”
delivers the message of human rights loud and clear. Some scenes where
the Tibetan monks and nuns were being tortured and executed by Chinese
army/death squads recall the shameful event that occurred with Native
American Indians during Post-Civil War America. Additionally, narration by
Dechen Wangdu, an American-raised Tibetan and Professor Robert Thurman,
Professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University (and father of actress Uma Thurman) help to reinforce the understanding behind the stark and brutal goals
of China, why the government sends their armies into monasteries and
systematically exterminates a passive, religious culture.
As the 1998 Tibetan Freedom Concert approaches, Sarah Pirozek told indieWIRE
yesterday that final rights clearances are being completed and talks with
distributors are underway. The film is set to make its festival debut this summer
at the Edinburgh Film Festival, according to the filmmaker. The 1998 Tibetan
Freedom concert takes place this weekend at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C., and Monday, June 15th has been declared a National Day of Action for Tibet.
A rally is scheduled to commence on the Capitol lawn at noon which will feature
notable guests, speakers from the Tibetan community, ex-political
prisoners, and a handful of surprise musical performances.
To learn more about Students For Free Tibet, call: 212/533.5705, their
Internet site is: