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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

'Tibet in Song' lands director in prison

October 31, 2010

Hugh Hart
The San Francisco Chronicle
October 29, 2010

A film so important, it was worth spending 7 years in a Chinese prison

Indie filmmakers often describe the hardships
involved in getting a movie project off the
ground, but rarely does the cost of doing
business include hard time in a Chinese prison.
That was the price paid by filmmaker Ngawang
Choephel in the course of bringing Sundance Film
Festival Special Jury Prize winner "Tibet in
Song," which opens Friday, to the screen.

Choephel, who fled Tibet at age 2 and grew up in
India, decided 15 years ago to document his
native land's folk songs. Equipped with a video
camera, he visited Tibetan villages where
traditional music was still performed. "These
villagers had no time to prepare," Choephel says.
"They sang for me on the spot, with the camera rolling."

A few weeks into the project, after he'd sent a
batch of material back to friends in India,
Choephel was arrested at dawn by secret police.
His remaining tapes were confiscated and the
filmmaker was charged with espionage.
Incarcerated for nearly seven years, Choephel
went back to work on "Tibet in Song" upon his release.

He explains, "As a musician, I cherish Tibetan
folk songs more than anybody else. It was hard to
remain silent about this." Choephel, who now
lives in New York, notes, "China has been killing
Tibetan culture by killing our songs. They
understand very well that music is a powerful tool of expression."

Director finds making film a tough climb

Bay Area filmmaker Frederick Marx offers a
different take on Tibetan culture with "Journey
from Zanskar." Screening at Viz Cinema on
Wednesday as part of the 3rd I South Asian Film
Festival, his documentary follows two monks and
17 children as they cross snow-covered Himalayan
mountains on foot, yak, horseback, jeep and bus
en route to a new school in Northern India's
"little Tibet" region. The trek proved to be tough going for Marx.

He recalls, "The day we attempted Shinku Pass,
going from 14,000 to 17,000 feet, I was unable to
ride a horse because the animal's footing was so
uncertain. The snow was very slippery. I fell a
lot." Cameraman Nick Sherman fared better and
kept up with the lead party. Marx explains, "I
chose Nick partly because he grew up in Colorado
Springs and was used to altitude."

The transformation of a local screenwriter

San Francisco resident Ehren Kruger got his big
break through a series of time-tested steps: He
wrote a script, won a prestigious screenplay
contest, quit his day job, then watched the
offers roll in. Kruger, who appears Wednesday at
a Los Angeles panel discussion featuring
recipients of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts
and Sciences' Nicholls Fellowship, has developed
a more collaborative approach to his craft since
penning his contest-winning script "Arlington
Road" in the '90s (It became a 1999 film with Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins).

"I started out writing screenplays alone in a
room and I've ended up writing movies," Kruger
laughs. "Along the way, I've embraced the idea
that a screenplay is a precise, elegant thing on
a page but it's essentially lifeless. To bring a
script to life, it needs to become a Frankenstein
monster that incorporates changes and revisions
and notes and budget cuts and location manager -
all sorts of different things."

Kruger co-wrote the $836 million-grossing
"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." He also
penned "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," set for
release next year. "Summer blockbuster movies are
designed to appeal to 8-year-olds and
40-year-olds, and Americans and Chinese and
Brazilians," Kruger says. "You do start thinking:
'What can we put on screen that hasn't been seen before?' "

Kruger, who lives in San Francisco, says the
trick comes in striking a dynamic balance between
spectacle and story. "When it works, the movie
turns out better than what you imagined on the
page. When it doesn't work, it becomes this
patchwork beast that turns against its creator." {sbox}

Hugh Hart is a Chronicle correspondent.
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