How does a culture survive while under threat from a dominant power? That’s a theme flowing through much of Oak Park filmmaker Seth McClellan’s work. His 2017 documentary, Little Wound’s Warriors, profiled high school students on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota as they try to maintain their Lakota heritage amid a suicide epidemic.
McClellan’s most recent film, “Others Before Self,” is an intimate portrait of life in the Tibetan Children’s Village, a boarding school for young refugees from Tibet that’s located in Dharamsala, India. The school was founded by the Dalai Lama in 1960, in order to care for young people who had been orphaned or separated from their parents after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950. The Dalai Lama began his permanent exile in 1959.
But while McClellan’s latest film continues his exploration of cultural resilience, its existence was far from preconceived. In fact, he got the idea after a chance encounter in early 2019 at Beer Shop in Downtown Oak Park. That’s where he met Mark Fredisdorf, a fellow Holmes parent and former school superintendent who has worked extensively with Tibetans in exile.
“Who else would be in a bar at 1:30 in the afternoon, in the middle of the week, except for parents waiting for their kids to get out of school?” Fredisdorf said.
“Seth is an amazing guy and has this incredible perception. One thing led to another and he told me about being a filmmaker and the work he’s done with indigenous populations, and I mentioned that, during my career, I’ve worked with Tibetans in exile.”
Fredisdorf said McClellan, a tenured instructor of mass communication at Triton College, “just started drilling me with these intense questions about the whole situation.”
The conversation turned into an invitation for McClellan to learn more about exiled Tibetans and their history with Communist China, which ultimately turned into an hour-long documentary that McClellan shot in the summer of 2019, right before the pandemic hit.
“My last movie, Little Wound’s Warriors, engaged with how young people, particularly young people in a vulnerable, traumatized community, regain their cultural identity — that’s a really interesting question,” McClellan said. “Amid climate change and geopolitical realignments in the next decades, it looks like the question of how cultures keep a sense of cohesiveness in the midst of upheaval may be one of the great questions of our time.”
In the film, students in the Tibetan Children’s Village recount their harrowing experiences fleeing Chinese persecution. Parents are killed, jailed or disappeared. China has even banned any image of the Dalai Lama from being displayed in Tibet.
According to the Tibetan government in exile, more than 1 million Tibetans have been killed since the start of the Chinese occupation.
“The film focuses on the perspective of these children who have experienced terrible trauma in their lives and who are served by these villages that turn them into compassionate, productive citizens,” said Fredisdorf, who first became acquainted with Tibetans in exile when he was working as an administrator at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India. He said Tibetans in exile had visited the school in an effort to modernize their own educational processes while maintaining their rich cultural integrity.
McClellan said everyone, particularly Americans, can learn a lot from the example set by Tibetans in exile.
“We have to get back to the principles of Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama and Gandhi — and those are the principles of non-violence and compassion,” McClellan said.
Others Before Self will start streaming via rental at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s virtual screening, from July 2 through Aug. 5.
For more information on “Others Before Self,” visit: facebook.com/othersbeforeselfmovie or siskelfilmcenter.org.