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

Tibet in Song: A doc with an identity crisis

October 25, 2010

The Globe and Mail
October 21, 2010

Tibet in Song is a potent story wrapped in a weak
documentary. The story is as old as it is sad: An
invading power robs the conquered people first of
their autonomy and then of their culture –
effacing the language spoken, the religion
practised, the songs sung. History is strewn with
these vast larcenies, and how they’re viewed,
whether celebrated or lamented, depends on who’s
writing the book. That’s because nations
(including this one) have been founded on such
violations and nations have been destroyed by
them. Invaded by the “modernizing” forces of
China in 1950, Tibet and its culture haven’t yet
been destroyed – but the signs of destruction abound, and the toll is mounting.

Enter Ngawang Choephel to document the loss. Of
course, Ngawang isn’t just any filmmaker. As the
world once knew, he’s also a man intimately
familiar with loss, having forfeited nearly eight
years of his life in a Tibetan prison overseen by
Chinese jailers. His case attracted international
attention, and the clamour raised, by famous
voices ranging from Al Gore to Annie Lennox,
eventually brought about his release in 2002. And
that’s when he set out to finish this
documentary, the very project that got him arrested in the first place.

Yes, on many levels, this is powerful material.
So why isn’t the film? Two reasons. The first is
a problem of identity – the doc is unsure of what
it wants to be. For example, Ngawang is a trained
musicologist who, as a child, fled Tibet with his
mother for sanctuary in India, where he studied
Tibetan folk music, gained a Fulbright
scholarship and, in 1995, returned to his country
of birth to employ his expertise – to record the
indigenous music, and to measure its erosion
under the twin might of Chinese propaganda and Chinese pop.

Some of this early footage survives, and here the
film has archival ambitions, preserving the old
tribal songs, explaining their essential place in
everyday life, and comparing their organic purity
to today’s invasive cacophony. However, when
Ngawang gets arrested for his research and
charged as a spy, the focus shifts from cultural
mission to personal memoir, from the attacks on
the music to his own victimization. Then it
shifts again when the need arises to illustrate
the broader political context – to chart China’s
initial invasion, the Dali Lama’s
government-in-exile, the subsequent uprisings and their ruthless suppression.

Obviously, these three elements -- the cultural,
the personal, the political -- are deeply
interrelated in an occupied country. That’s
precisely what makes the plight so tragic. But
the attempts to capture that co-mingling seem
scattershot here, which brings us to the film’s
second problem: a loose structure that, instead
of concentrating our attention, diffuses it.
Whether musicians or dissidents or refugees, lots
of involved principals get their camera time, and
they all have tales to tell. Yet, although often
individually moving, their accounts become
collectively distracting. It’s as if the film
takes on too many identities, all in a sincere
attempt to dramatize a nation’s loss of identity.

No doubt, that loss would be as vast as the
country itself, which measures the size of
Western Europe. So the peril is real, the clock
is ticking – Tibet in Song may lack harmony, but not urgency.

Tibet in Song

* Directed and written by Ngawang Choephel
* Classification: PG
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