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Eyes on the prize 

A doctor’s efforts to bring modern science to a limited Tibet have been recorded for the doc Visioning Tibet. Carsten Knox takes a look.

“Our lives have become very long,” says a man named Karma.

He’s Tibetan, a dweller on the high plains some 15,000 feet above sea level, and he, with two of his cousins, has gone blind. Four percent of the Tibetan population over age 40 has cataracts due to high levels of ultraviolet radiation that prematurely age the eye. It’s a treatable condition in the industrial world, but the medical knowledge is only just now coming to Tibet, largely due to the efforts of an American doctor, Marc Lieberman.

His work and the effect it has had on Tibetans like Karma has been captured by filmmaker Isaac Solotaroff in the documentary Visioning Tibet, shot in April 2002 and presented by Lieberman at a screening October 11 at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Dalhousie University.

As the film recounts, a trip to Tibet in 1995 was the beginning of Lieberman’s healing odyssey. Every year since, he and his colleagues from the California Pacific Medical Centre have made a spring and a fall journey to the mountainous nation. The idea is not just that they conduct these eye operations, but that they train local surgeons to learn the skills to do the procedure themselves.

Lieberman is clearly beguiled by the people and the culture, and it’s easy to see why, particularly in the rural areas untainted by the Chinese rule.

“They’ve been able to preserve the culture,” says Lieberman on the phone from his home in San Francisco. “The openness, generosity of spirit, reverence of teachers and the learned. They regard us the way they regard their monastic teachers and come across as being quite luminous. They tilt toward gratitude rather than grumbling.”

Lieberman says that until he saw the Visioning Tibet, he never really knew the impact of his work. He was too busy to have heard of all the stories Solotaroff records in personal interviews with the Tibetans. The film also details the Chinese red tape Lieberman wades through just to enter Tibet in 2002. That this documentary exists at all is an accomplishment.

“The entire film was only possible due to mini-DV cameras,” Lieberman says. “The Chinese thought he was a tourist, taking snapshots.”

Solotaroff managed to repeatedly escape the surveillance of his Chinese handlers before interviewing the Tibetan patients at the various “eye camps” set up in the countryside.

From the customs officials to the hospital administrators looking for bribes, the film reveals Lieberman’s constant fight with bureaucracy in his efforts to complete his mission. “The corruption you see there is endemic in the entire developing world,” Lieberman says. “It’s the same greedy pig at the trough wherever you go.” He doesn’t hide his political or social outrage at the Chinese regime in the film or in real life. “A pendulum goes back and forth in China. They’re swinging into one of the more xenophobic times—they’re not welcoming of the NGOs.”

The operations Lieberman and his group provide are free to the people in need, all funded by charitable donations in the United States. “Mostly by a song and prayer,” he says. “We’ve been fortunate with some wealthy friends and patients. We get 98 percent of our budget from one percent of the donors.” (The film will be broadcast on PBS in the spring, which should attract new sources of funding for his regular trips.)

What he learned from travelling in Asia about the more spiritual side of healing reconnected Lieberman with his calling after 10 years of medical school in the US left him adrift. Today he’s not terribly optimistic about American medical attitudes toward faith or some of the more holistic practices of the East.

“There’s been such a comodification of the doctor patient relationship,” he says. “It’s now no different than the one between a clerk and shopper at K-Mart, a pay-for-service arrangement. The bottom line is so compelling. In India, everyone from the floor washers to the surgeons love what they do. I don’t see it institutionally, though I sometimes see it individually.”

Before he signs off, Lieberman talks about his son, whose name is in the credits of Visioning Tibet. He joined his father on a visit to Tibet and was inspired. “He woke up and noticed the world is terribly broken,” says Lieberman. “He’s going into international law—he wants to change the world by going into the belly of the beast.”

Visioning Tibet, October 11 at Ondaatje Hall, McCain building at Dalhousie University, 7pm, free

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