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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Tibetan Ex-Prisoner Evokes His Homeland's Struggle in a Movie

September 26, 2010

New York Times
September 23, 2010

This has been a busy week for some Tibetans in
New York, who have seized on the Chinese prime
minister’s visit to the United Nations to hold
angry street demonstrations against that nation’s rule in their homeland.

But for Ngawang Choephel, a Tibetan filmmaker and
music scholar who spent six and a half years in
Chinese prisons on espionage charges, the moment
presents an opportunity for a less raucous sort of protest.

On Friday, Mr. Choephel will preside over the
theatrical premiere of his film, "Tibet in Song,"
which tells of his arrest during a trip there to
shoot a documentary about the impact of a
half-century of Chinese rule on Tibetan folk
music. The movie, which has won awards at several
film festivals around the world, contends that
the Chinese authorities have co-opted elements of
Tibetan music and dance for their propaganda
while otherwise suppressing cultural traditions.

Mr. Choephel’s release from prison in 2002, just
before a visit to China by President George W.
Bush, made headlines and concluded an
international human rights campaign that was
joined by Paul McCartney and Annie Lennox. He
moved months later to New York, where he has
lived quietly ever since, working to finish the
film and feeding on the city’s intensity.

"I really wanted to get busy, and it gave me a
lot of energy," said Mr. Choephel, 44, a compact,
soft-spoken man who now lives in Sunnyside,
Queens. "There’s a constant consciousness about how you are using your time."

Mr. Choephel (pronounced cheu-FELL) was born in
Tibet in 1966, but two years later he was taken
from the country by his mother as she fled the
Cultural Revolution. He grew up in a refugee
settlement in southern India, attended Middlebury
College in Vermont on a Fulbright scholarship,
then returned to Tibet in 1995 to shoot the documentary.

Two months into his trip, as he drove to visit
his father, whom he had not seen since leaving
Tibet, Mr. Choephel was stopped at a checkpoint
by Chinese intelligence agents, he said. They
arrested him and confiscated his camera, notes
and videotape. He was convicted of spying,
without a trial, and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

He continued his research behind bars,
transcribing songs sung by fellow prisoners on
cigarette wrappers, which he bound into a
makeshift notebook. After guards discovered his
archive and destroyed it, he said, he started memorizing the songs.

Mr. Choephel also experienced a sort of
conversion. Before his detention, his engagement
with the movement for an independent Tibet had
been largely intellectual. But his imprisonment
made the cause more personal. "I had joined the
struggle," he says in the documentary.

The campaign for his freedom gained momentum, and
in January 2002, he was released. The Chinese
authorities called it a medical parole, but Mr.
Choephel said he was not suffering from any major
illness and believed that the government had
succumbed to international pressure.

He fondly remembered New York from visits as a
college student and felt comfortable among its
thriving immigrant communities. "That gives me
strength because all the immigrants come here with a big goal," he said.

There are about 5,000 to 6,000 Tibetans in New
York and New Jersey, said officials at the
Tibetan Community of New York and New Jersey,
which provides social services and cultural
classes. While the population is scattered across
the city, its institutional heart is in a
building on East 32nd Street in Manhattan that
contains the offices of the cultural group and
the Dalai Lama’s representative to the Americas.

At first, Mr. Choephel was reluctant to fold his
own story into the film, he said, in part because
he thought his ordeal paled next to those of
others he had met in prison. "I always felt my story was too small," he said.

The film, which he finished in 2009, won a
special jury prize at last year’s Sundance Film
Festival. Mr. Choephel recently held a private
screening in New York for the Dalai Lama’s
representative, Lobsang Nyandak. "It has a really
strong political message portraying the true
picture of the stark reality in Tibet today," Mr. Nyandak said.

The film is scheduled to play for a week at the
Cinema Village Theater before being shown across
the country. Mr. Choephel hopes it will teach
more people about Tibet’s struggles, though he is
not expecting it to make much of a difference for Tibetans.

"We have been telling our stories for over 50
years -- the same story over and over and over,"
he said with a sigh. ‘The Chinese did this to me, did that to me.’"

"How are we going to solve this?" he asked.
"Sharing my experience and being a voice for my
friends in Tibet. Will it help? I think it will.
But will it solve the problem? No."
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