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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" Review - 2009 Asian American International Film Festival

August 4, 2009

By Eric Hung
Meniscus Magazine
August 2, 2009

For many ethnomusicologists and human rights
activists, Ngawang Choephel has been a household
name for more than a decade. In 1995, the Tibetan
exile - who graduated from the Tibetan Institute
of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India, and came
to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar at
Middlebury College - returned to Tibet to make a
film about the folk music of his homeland. Two
months into the trip, he was stopped at a police
check point, arrested on suspicion of espionage,
and sentenced without trial to 18 years in
prison. An international human rights campaign
helped to secure his release in 2002.

Given this background, it is no surprise that
Choephel's long-awaited film, "Tibet in Song,"
did not come out the way he originally intended.
Since he sent half of his field recordings to
India prior to his arrest, Choephel was still
able to make a documentary about the state of
Tibetan folk music in present-day Tibet. At the
same time, "Tibet in Song"; narrates Choephel's
own journey from folk musician and researcher to political prisoner.

The autobiographical story is the more compelling
of the two tales. Here, Choephel concentrated not
so much on his considerable suffering during his
imprisonment, but on his pride in becoming an
active participant in the Tibetan resistance and
his growing admiration for those who sacrificed
much in their fight for independence. A
particularly gripping scene involves his
interview with three women who were sent to
prison for protesting. During their
incarceration, they were tortured for refusing to
sing the Chinese National Anthem during the
flag-raising ceremony each morning. This clearly
demonstrated that music, often seen as a purely
positive force in American society, can just as
easily divide people and serve as a weapon.

The documentary's material on Tibetan folk music
includes valuable (and extremely hard-to-get)
footage. It also makes several convincing
arguments; Choephel's overall point that Chinese
government policies have led to a rapid decline
in Tibetan folk culture is impossible to dispute.
He also persuasively shows how folk music has
traditionally been used to educate young Tibetans
on the culture's worldview and customs.

Ultimately, however, Choephel's overemphasis on
the effects of Chinese government policies, while
perfectly understandable given his background,
makes his assessment of the decline of Tibetan
folk music a little too simplistic. After all,
folk cultures are going extinct all over the
world, and the reasons are many: urbanization,
changes in religious philosophy, economic
development, globalization, tourism,
technological innovation, fusion and so on. To be
fair, Choephel does mention some of these factors
in the film; one only wishes that he had explored
them in greater depth. A particularly
underdeveloped subject is the relationship
between the Tibetan folk music and its Buddhist culture.

Despite my reservations, "Tibet in Song" is a
valuable film that not only gives viewers a peek
into a musical tradition that is not well-known
in the United States, but can also spark
important conversations on a wide variety of political and cultural topics.

"Tibet in Song" was shown at the 2009
Asian-American International Film Festival. The
film's director, Ngawang Choephel, won the
festival's "Best Emerging Director in Documentary Feature" Award.
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