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He Lets Freedom Sing

September 24, 2010

Tibetan hero's film set to air
Daniel Edward Rosen
New York Daily News
September 21, 2010

HE WAS a political prisoner whose work to
preserve Tibetan music made him a human rights hero.

Now, with his critically acclaimed documentary,
"Tibet in Song," slated for release in New York
on Friday, filmmaker Ngawang Choephel said his
film is a testament to his love for Tibet.

"I feel like I'm always doing something for
Tibet, and that keeps me eternally happy. But I
didn't make this film to be a filmmaker," said
Choephel, 46, of Sunnyside. "I made this film
because I believe in this story much more than the filmmaking itself."

When he was 2 years old, Choephel and his mother
escaped Chinese-ruled Tibet for India by
traveling across the Himalayas on a yak, he said.
While growing up in a refugee camp, Choephel came
to love the folk songs he heard from other Tibetan refugees.

"Through the songs that they sang or shared, I
could feel something tangible about Tibet," he said.

His love of Tibetan folk music eventually
inspired him to return to Tibet in 1995. Armed
with a video camera, he set out to capture
Tibetans singing the songs of their ancestors.

"It's very important not just to preserve it in a
museum or in a music library, but it also needs
to be promoted and made as a living tradition,
because this is our ancestors' work of art," he said.

But Choephel discovered that traditional Tibetan
culture had been overshadowed by Chinese pop music and military anthems.

In one scene in the film, Choephel asks a
6-year-old boy to sing a Tibetan folk song for
him. The boy responds by singing a Chinese
military song. Additional scenes depicting
Chinese-sponsored theater troupes performing for
an often silent Tibetan audience showed "there
was no connection" between the two cultures, he said.

"This is an example on how desperately China is
trying to introduce a new form of art," he said.

During the 1995 trip, while journeying to his
birthplace in western Tibet, Choephel was stopped
by Chinese authorities on suspicion of espionage.
He was imprisoned for a year and then eventually
sentenced to another 18 years in jail.

His imprisonment became a rallying cry for
high-profile figures, including former Vice
President Al Gore and musician Paul McCartney,
who championed his release. He was freed in 2002.

He resumed making his film in 2004, interviewing
Tibetan exiles in India. "Tibet in Song" won the
Special Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival last year.

Choephel, who said he is distributing the film in
seven cities at his own expense, said the situation in Tibet has not improved.

"Tibetans have already been marginalized, not
just people but everything about them - their
art, their religion, their music, their
literature," he said. "Now the Chinese are dominant."
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