Someone should really get the Chinese Embassy in touch with a good PR agency. After Filmfest DC officials provided the embassy with a video of Paul Wagner’s Windhorse, a film about Chinese repression in Tibet, Minister-Counsellor for Cultural Affairs Li Gang responded that “the story is…completely false” and “demand[ed] that this film be withdrawn from your film festival.” The result was a promotional bonanza for the obscure, low-budget movie.

As a sellout crowd lined up in the rain outside the Cineplex Odeon Embassy Saturday night, Wagner juggled local TV-news crews and phone calls from Agence France Presse, while the fest’s organizers scrambled to add an 11:15 p.m. screening to accommodate the demand. “It’s all publicity for us. I wouldn’t be talking to you if not for the Chinese Embassy,” noted Wagner, a former Washingtonian now based in Charlottesville.

Wagner’s previous films have dealt primarily with the American experience, but the director says that Windhorse grew partially from his TV documentary Out of Ireland. After exploring the oppression of Irish Catholics, he recalls thinking, “So many things about the Tibetan situation were identical to the Irish situation.” Wagner’s other inspiration was his niece Julia Elliott, who was harassed by the police for taking photographs during a trip to Lhasa. Elliott and Thupten Tsering, her Tibetan-exile boyfriend, co-wrote the film with Wagner, and both attended the D.C. screenings.

Li Gang’s letter doesn’t mention it, but the Chinese were probably not thrilled that some of Windhorse was actually shot in Lhasa. Wagner lacked the budget to simulate the city elsewhere, but that wasn’t his only reason for filming on location. “I’m a documentary filmmaker,” he notes. “I don’t think in terms of building sets. I want to know where the real images are.” Using a digital video camera, Wagner made two trips to Tibet to find those images.

Dressed in a worn red “Free Tibet” T-shirt, Tsering shrugs modestly when Wagner praises his contributions to the film. He emphasizes that he blames China’s government, not its people. “So far, when we’ve shown the movie,” he says, “it’s Chinese people who have been crying.”

“In a way, it’s sad that [local Chinese diplomats] don’t want to watch it,” he adds.

“Right,” agrees Wagner. “They’re the ones who should be watching it.”

Note to local PR agencies: The Tibetan Freedom Concert is June 13 and 14. It might be wise to make your pitch before then.

—Mark Jenkins

More from WCP