Interview with Theo Hessing

Rebecca Corbett 

Ready for a change from his work in on an international development project, Theo Hessing turned his hand to creating his documentary. Straight out of film school, he found himself on a plane to India in search of telling some of the untold stories in Tibet. In ‘A Sacrifice’, he tells the story of Lhamo Kyab, a Tibetan political activist jailed for expressing his national identity. Hessing tells his story and explains that Lhamo Kyab’s sacrifice was not an exception, but is worryingly common, and is told with a brutal and moving honesty that few film-makers achieve.

I was fortunate enough to interview the man behind the documentary about his experiences filming ‘A Sacrifice’.

Guardian: What inspired you to create a film about Tibet?

Theo Hessing: Making a film about Tibet was something I’d always been interested in. I became more interested in it when I met my girlfriend, who is half-Tibetan. Her dad has an amazing story in his own right. He grew up in a nomadic part of Eastern Tibet, actually not far from where LhamoKyab was born, and had this incredible trajectory where he ended up in the UK as one of a handful of lucky kids sent over to be educated here. He had been identified as a lama within the monastic system in Tibet and they’d wanted him to go into the monastery, but his parents decided against it and he ended up becoming a very successful businessman instead. His story captivated me, and he also grew up in Dharamsala, where the film was made. So it was a combination of interest and my girlfriend’s dad’s connection with Dharamsala, which made accessing people and organisations over there easier.

Guardian: How did you find your particular story?

Theo Hessing: The gung-ho approach I took to finding this story is perhaps one I would think twice about repeating, because I went out to India without any idea about the story I was going to tell. I spent almost a month interviewing people, including a lot of former political prisoners. It was through the interview process that I discovered how many Tibetans had committed these huge sacrifices for their country and people. I met many former monks and nuns who had been involved in protests inside Tibet. These protests would often only last a few minutes – three, ten, fifteen minutes because the Chinese crackdown on any form of protest in Tibet is so swift, but the consequences were inevitably extensive spells in prison.

Guardian: So these three minutes protesting would equal three months in prison?

Theo Hessing: More like three years. And as Tibetan political prisoners they are probably treated worse than anyone else inside a Chinese prison.  Almost everyone I interviewed had been tortured. As a Tibetan political prisoner, it is also difficult to return to a normal life after being released from prison, because the police follow you and accost you so regularly. Monks and nuns usually aren’t allowed to return to the monastery. Many former political prisoners are forced to flee the country, which often means leaving their families, sometimes for good. Communication with their families once they are outside Tibet is also restricted because the Chinese authorities monitor phone calls and internet communications so strictly. So I got really interested in the motivations for getting involved in these protests, given the incredibly high prices people had paid, especially because many of the protests never even made it to the news. I was interested to explore the motivations for these sacrifices.

Guardian: I have heard about the self-immolations – did you experience any news of them when you were over there?

Theo Hessing: They were happening a lot while I was filming in India – at that point they were rising rapidly in the run-up to the Chinese election last November. There was a candlelight vigil and prayers going on almost every week as each new self-immolation was announced. I felt that all these self-immolations were a mirror on a macro-level for what I was learning about on a micro-level in my interviews. However, I gave myself a hell of a task trying to edit these two strands together – self-immolation and the personal story of LhamoKyab – as this connection appeared much less obvious visually when I put the footage together. Despite that, I felt there was a story in bringing the two together.

Guardian: Did you find it difficult working in such a different culture?

Theo Hessing: I always find the cultural aspect fascinating, that’s actually one of the most interesting aspects for me – to be immersed in an environment that is so different. It was really exciting to learn more about the Tibetan culture, and how religion especially influences people’s worldview. I found in discussions and interactions with Tibetans that people’s belief, for example in reincarnation or the inherent value of practicing compassion and selflessness in daily life, could lead them to make different decisions, reach different perspectives, and act differently towards others than would perhaps be common in our own culture. This is also the case at an organizational level – for instance the Tibetan Government-in-Exile periodically consults a deity, whose pronouncements can have an influence on its policy direction. Can you imagine the British Government doing that?

Guardian: Did you come across any problems with the Chinese government at all when they found out what you were doing?

Theo Hessing: I never had any intention of filming inside Tibet, I just knew it would be too risky. But I didn’t have any problems in India. When I returned to the UK I received a slightly strange message on Twitter which seemed to come from a Tibetan organisation, saying that someone had written ‘a horrible blog about me’, but when I followed the link it took me to a fake Twitter login page that I later Googled, and found entries in Chinese and about hacking. I suppose it’s a form of intimidation, although I can’t be sure who the message was from. China monitors the internet closely, but I was honestly surprised that my film had gained any attention whatsoever, as it’s a comparatively small project. I certainly harbour no ideological opposition towards China – I think it’s a fascinating country with a rich culture and history, although I disagree with its government’s policies in Tibet and I think that the slow eradication of Tibetan culture inside Tibet is tragic. I did not set out to make a film that is partisan or anti-China, and I don’t think my film is either of those things, but I suppose that from a Chinese governmental perspective any film that gives voice to ordinary Tibetans could be seen as threatening.

Guardian: What are your plans now? Anything in the pipeline?

Theo Hessing: I am about to travel to Australia to document my dad’s life there in the 1950s and 60s – he was a well-known painter in Australia who arrived as a Jewish refugee after WWII. As my dad died when I was a teenager, there’s a lot that I don’t know about his life, which was very rich. His personal journey took him from the ghettos of Eastern Europe to the studio of Fernand Léger in Paris, via an internment camp in Cyprus and Israel at its inception, to Sydney, happenings with Claes Oldenburg in New York and later with Yoko Ono in London. I will be filming interviews with artists from that era who are still alive – many are now very old. I’d like to eventually turn my journey into a short film, although it’s a long-term project as it could take me to several other places first.