Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Film Review: When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun

When The Dragon Swallowed the SunIt always interests me when people share quotations attributed, often falsely, to the Dalai Lama. While it is clear that he is an international symbol of peace and unity, I wonder how many people know that the Dalai Lama is an exile and has been living outside of his home country since his escape in 1959.

The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 ushered in a period of increasing religious and political persecution. The 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation was crushed with devastating consequences for the leadership of the country. The Tibetan government was declared illegal and the leadership forced into exile, while the 14th Dalai Lama himself escaped over the Himalaya mountains into India. The Chinese government declared 28 March 1959 to be Serf Emancipation Day and insists that it represents the liberation of Tibetans from a system of feudalism and theocracy.

Tibet - Dragon Swallowed the Sun

The modern history of Tibet is one of great tragedy; human rights abuses and atrocities have been regularly documented. Like many others under Chinese rule, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans perished in Mao’s Great Leap Forward from 1960 to 1962. Thousands of Tibetan monasteries were destroyed in this period and yet more were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.

The Chinese government has met protests in the 1980s and during the 2008 Olympics with brute force and lethal crackdowns. Reports from Tibet speak of arbitrary arrests, excessive punishments, disappearances and torture. While Chinese citizens are lead to believe that Tibetans are exempt from the one-child policy, Tibetans are in fact subjected to involuntary sterilizations, forced abortions and even infanticide.

Despite these well-documented events and a fairly strong worldwide movement to Free Tibet, why is it that Tibet hasn’t been freed?

Dirk Simon is the director of When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun, a feature length documentary on the movement to free Tibet from Chinese occupation. Seven years in the making, the film features interviews with and footage of the 14th Dalai Lama, the exiled prime minister of Tibet as well as the exiled king Lhagyari Trichen Namgyal Wangchuk, the 18th descendant of the Great Religious Kings of Tibet.

Tibet - When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun

The film explores the key split in the movement, between those who have resigned themselves to Tibetan autonomy within China and those who continue to strive for freedom and independence from China. As the young king is crowned, he must struggle to balance his education and youth with the incredible burden and responsibility placed on his shoulders. With the western world far more interested in wooing the Chinese and securing their place in China’s great economic future, the Chinese government steps up their attempt to re-educate Tibetans and eradicate Tibetan culture and religion once and for all.

When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun paints a bleak picture of a movement in tatters but does it work as a documentary? The answer is not quite. With such a provocative title, dramatic cinematic trailer and the promise of the involvement of celebrity figures such as Richard Gere and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, this is a documentary that promises much more than it delivers. Most people picking up this documentary will want to learn more about the history of modern day in Tibet and the reality of life for Tibetans both in the country and those in exile but that isn’t provided.

Interviews with key figures seem out of place, unrelated to the scenes preceding or following them, and they don’t appear to follow any greater direction or narrative. The footage of both historical and current events occurs in its raw form without narration, context or description and the viewer is left to try and decipher the direction that the documentary is taking. With so many disconnected scenes, little insight is provided into the situation.

When The Dragon Swallowed the Sun pack shotUltimately, When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun is disappointing. It is quite beautiful with impressive cinematography, but this is to be expected of a film about one of the most beautiful and remote regions on earth. The film would have benefitted with more focus on historical events and a more nuanced exploration of the difficulties that Tibetan people face under Chinese occupation. It is a pity because this film could have been a great opportunity to spread word about the situation in Tibet.

When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun was released in the UK on DVD 9 December 2013 and can be purchased from


Sunday, 8 December 2013

Audiobook review: The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

The War That Ended Peace UK cover

I believe that each generation thinks of the First and Second World Wars in a different way, depending on whether our peers, parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents fought in them. In my case, my great-grandfathers fought in the First World War and my grandfather in the Second. I have a living memory of my grandfather living with injuries sustained in the Second World War and I recall the stories he told me about his time in all of the major theatres of the war.

Yet somehow I have never quite been able to fathom how total war was possible. I saw the glory days of Europe at the turn of the century, with its world fairs and expositions, followed by the roaring twenties and the Great Depression. I knew about the First World War, of course I did, but I struggled to connect the culture of innovation, harmony and discovery with total war and absolute devastation.

This perception was not helped by the way in which the outbreak of the war was explained to us in school. Countless articles and books began with statements along the lines of, “when Gavrilo Princip assasinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo in 1914, he had no idea of what he was setting in motion”.

This never made sense to me. We were taught that the First World War was an inevitable consequence of this one act of assassination but I could never accept that, and rightly so.

The War That Ended Peace UK coverWith the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War taking place next year, I thought what better choice than Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace, narrated by Richard Burnip and released on audiobook format by Audible.

The War That Ended Peace begins with a description of The Exposition Universelle of 1900. This world fair was held in Paris to showcase the great achievements of the world in terms of innovation, technology and advancement. The proceedings were imbued with a general feeling of well-being and confidence, even in the presence of a healthy atmosphere of competition between the participating nations.

How then did the world descend into chaos? MacMillan warns in the very first chapter that Europeans were complacent, that they should have paid more attention to the American Civil War and Franco-Prussian Wars.

What follows is an extremely well-researched and in-depth look at the personalities behind the war. Each chapter looks at the motivations, insecurities and observations of the key political players in the context of rising distrust and rivalry between the nations. Meanwhile, alliances form in the most unexpected of places while old alliances fail. The detailed biographies focus not just on Britain’s King George V, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II and Russia’s Czar Nicholas II but include Lord Salisbury, Admiral Jackie Fisher and Alfred von Tirpitz amongst others.

Ultimately, The War That Ended Peace appears to leave more questions than it provides answers. We’re provided with an important insight into the key payers but are we to believe that war was inevitable because of a simple comedy of errors, a clash of egos or a series of unfortunate diplomatic mistakes? Perhaps looking at the wars of the first decades of the 21st century, that is precisely what it was. MacMillan draws parallels between modern day terrorist organisations and the anarchists and activists of the previous century and concludes ominously that there are always choices.

The audiobook version of The War That Ended Peace is narrated by Richard Burnip, an actor and historian who previously narrated Frank Wynne’s I Was Veneer. After listening to several fictional works on audiobook, I decided to experiment and listen to a work of non-fiction in this format. I do like to read non-fiction works but progress can often be slow, especially with historical or political works which can tend to be a bit dry and heavy.

I won’t lie, The War That Ended Peace is long. The print version of the book is 784 pages long and progress through an audiobook is rather defined by the pace of the narration. While superbly enunciated and clearly understandable, Burnip’s narration was extremely slow and I increased the narration speed to 1.25x and even 1.5x to quicken the pace. Nevertheless, Burnip used just the right amount of solemnity and levity in his narration and made it much easier to progress through this lengthy tome than I fear I would have experienced had I tried to read the book. Despite this, it still took almost a month to work my way to the end of the audiobook.

The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan is available to purchase in audiobook format from, in paperback from and in hardcover and Kindle format from

Article first published as Audiobook Review: ‘The War That Ended Peace’ by Margaret MacMillan on Blogcritics.

A copy of this audiobook was provided to me for the purposes of this review and all opinions contain herein are my own.

© A Passion to Understand

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