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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?"

Filmmaker Choephel tells tale of Tibet

November 4, 2009

By Sally Pollak, Staff Writer
Burlington Free Press
October 30, 2009

Ngawang Choephel was 2 when he and his mother
fled Tibet, the place of his birth, after its
occupation and control by the Chinese. The two
traveled by yak across the Himalayas to India,
where they lived in a Tibetan refugee camp in southern India.

Years later, in 1995, Choephel returned to Tibet
with a video camera, seeking to learn about and
record Tibetan folk music. Choephel's plans to
make a documentary about the music of Tibet were
disrupted when he was arrested and imprisoned by Chinese authorities.

He remained in jail for nearly 6 1/2years. On his
release, Choephel was clear and determined about
what he intended to do: finish his film.

The movie, "Tibet in Song," will be screened at 3
p.m. today at Palace 9 Cinemas in South
Burlington. The documentary is showing as part of
the Vermont International Film Festival.

Choephel, its writer, director and producer, was
in Burlington earlier this week, for Wednesday
night's screening of "Tibet in Song." The
filmmaker and musician, who lives in Queens,
N.Y., said he was able to keep his idea alive
during imprisonment by believing in his story.

"It's basically a human passion toward art, and
art is something that is very emotional," Choephel said. "Especially music.

"We have achieved a lot of great things in the
world," he said, talking by phone Thursday
morning from the airport. "But music is something
that expresses human emotions in a way that has
the power to change the minds of the most intelligent people in the world."

Choephel's first visit to the United States was
in 1993-94, when he was a Fulbright scholar at
Middlebury College. At Middlebury, he studied
music and English -- and came to believe that
there is no place better than Vermont to first
experience the United States, Choephel said.

"Vermont is the best place to start," he said.
"There's a culture here, and people care about
each other. It's a good representation of not
just people in America, but your roots from Europe."

After leaving Middlebury, Choephel returned to
India before traveling the next year to Tibet, the country of his roots.

Choephel, 44, is a musician who plays a
six-stringed instrument called dramnyen. He
visited Tibet to listen to music, interview folk
musicians, film people and record their songs.

"They sang for me on the spot, with the camera
rolling. They had no time to prepare," Choephel
says in a film synopsis on the movie's Web site
( "I felt like there was no
camera between us -- it was very natural. They
really understood what my concern was and what I was hoping to capture."

He had been in Tibet for two months before he was
arrested. About half his footage had been sent
home to India with a friend; another 16 hours of
footage and his notes were confiscated by
authorities, according to his Web site.

Choephel's imprisonment gained international
attention. Those speaking out against his
confinement and seeking his release included
musicians and politicians -- including Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

His mother was also instrumental in the effort.
In January 2002, he was freed. Choephel's time in
prison, "definitely intensified my passion to
tell the story," he said. "It's how much you
believe in the story, and your passion, that's what kept me going."

"Tibet in Song" won a special jury prize for a
documentary at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival,
and best documentary feature at the recent Calgary International Film Festival.

"I have learned so much in the past six, seven
years, working on this film," Choephel said.

He is working these days on the film's
distribution, hoping to get it shown in theaters,
on television and at film festivals.

Movies, like music, have always been an important
part of his life. He grew up watching Bollywood
films, often the first kid in line the day big pictures came out.

"Those were our modern identity," he said. "I used to like them a lot."

"Tibet in Song" is Choephel's look -- through his
twin passions of music and film -- at the
cultural and historical identity of his ancestral home and people.
Additional Facts

* WHAT: Vermont International Film Festival
* WHEN: Through Sunday
* WHERE: Palace 9 Cinemas, South Burlington
* TICKETS: $5.50 to $6.75
* SCREENING: "Tibet in Song" 3 p.m. today
Contact Sally Pollak at or 660-1859.
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