A "windhorse" is a piece of paper containing a cry for freedom set aloft to be delivered to the wind gods. Windhorse is a powerful movie about the Chinese treatment of the Tibetan people. Since 1959, China has occupied Tibet and refused to acknowledge its sovereignty. It has forced Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in exile to India, and is responsible for the deaths of more than one million Tibetans.
Unlike Kundun which is about the Dalai Lama, this movie focuses on three everyday people living in Tibet who all band together against the Chinese oppression. Sister and brother, Dolkar (Dadon) and Dorjee (Jampa Kelsang), and their cousin Pema (name withheld for security reasons), are three cousins whose jump rope playing (and childhood) is violently interrupted by the sound of their grandfather being gunned down by Chinese authorities for protesting the Chinese occupation. The three children grow up taking very different paths: Pema becomes a nun, Dolkar becomes a singer in a disco, and Dorjee becomes a bum.
Their lives all meet when Pema is arrested for making an appeal to freedom in public and is severely beaten. Dorjee, whiling away his time drinking and playing pool, is willed into action when he sees his cousin's badly beaten body. As she takes care of Pema, Dolkar, who has been singing Chinese songs praising Mao Tse-tung, also backs away from her authoritarian benefactors to join the struggle. The three of them are aided by a young American tourist, Amy (Taije Silverman), who surreptitiously records the atrocities committed by the Chinese in her video camera. Their goal: to expose to the world exactly what is happening in Tibet.
Windhorse is a gritty and evocative film about the horrors Tibetans face today, beautifully constructed by Paul Wagner. Unlike many propaganda-based movies, the protagonists in the film don't really succeed in their goals and dreams of freedom, and like the Dalai Lama, are forced to leave Tibet. The actors, all of them non-professionals, do a great job in conveying the message of freedom in native Tibetan and Chinese languages. Filmed on location, the cinematography, involving both the spectacular Himalayan mountains, the colourful marketplaces of Tibet's capital Lhasa, and the pervasive nature of Chinese surveillance, is illustrated in a powerful manner. (For the latter reason, parts of the film were shot surreptitiously using hand-held cameras with the crew posing as tourists.)
The plight of Tibetans is largely ignored by the world. I didn't need to watch this film to appreciate and empathise with their plight, but if nothing else, the film illustrates what a work of passion truly is: Wagner and his company clearly appear to be motivated by instincts beyond profit. This is a great example of using visual imagery to expose the thought-police (as opposed how governments generally use it, à la Enemy of the State).