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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Film: Tibet In Song

December 11, 2009

Tibetans once had songs for almost every activity. In Tibet in Song,
Lhamo explains the costume her grandmother sent.
Capturing a nation's fading soundtrack meant seven years in a Chinese prison

Jennie Punter

 From Friday's Globe and Mail Published on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009
3:35PM EST Last updated on Friday, Dec. 11, 2009 2:43AM EST

When exiled musician and scholar Ngawang Choephel returned to his native
Tibet in 1995 to record and videotape indigenous folk songs, he was
arrested by Chinese authorities, charged with spying and sent to prison,
where he served seven years of an 18-year sentence.

This remarkable story alone would have provided ample fodder for a
compelling documentary. But Choephel decided to keep his focus on a
bigger picture and the result is Tibet in Song , a rich, fascinating if
somewhat bumpy exploration of the history, sound, meaning and current
state of traditional Tibetan folk music.

The film, which won a special jury prize for documentary at the Sundance
festival earlier this year and is this month's Doc Soup screening, does
use Choephel's personal journey as a navigation tool. His exile (his
family fled the Chinese occupation of Tibet when he was two), musical
education in Dharamsala, India, and in the United States, scholarly work
in “song collecting” and then imprisonment take viewers through key
points in the modern history and struggles of Tibetans.

While several of Choephel's videotapes were seized at the time of his
arrest, some were smuggled out. These roughly photographed scenes
beautifully illustrate the integral role music plays in the daily lives
of Tibetans, who have songs for just about every activity.

But the ancient tunes and rhythms are being drowned out by the Chinese
cultural juggernaut. Choephel is dismayed to discover patriotic Chinese
songs blaring from loudspeakers in the streets, and market stalls that
sell only Chinese pop recordings. Officially approved Tibetan performing
groups leave local audiences with blank stares; Chinese authorities have
exploited the power of music in Tibetan culture by changing lyrics of
popular songs and supporting performers willing to sing them.

Choephel, who is scheduled to attend Doc Soup, makes a powerful case for
culture as a form of resistance. In one heartbreaking scene he
interviews three women who were imprisoned and tortured for refusing to
sing the Chinese national anthem. They never gave in.

Recent documentaries such as the NFB's What Remains of Us (2004) and 10
Questions for the Dalai Lama (2006) give a glimpse of Tibetan culture,
but their main focus is the spiritual and political work of the Dalai
Lama. Tibet in Song presents a far more penetrating and well-rounded
picture, not to mention voices that will resonate with viewers long
after the credits roll.

Tibet in Song, part of Hot Docs' Doc Soup series, screens Dec. 16 at
6:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. at the Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor St. W.). Tickets
$12 in advance from or same day at venue.
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