By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 4, 2010)
Did you know that the Tibetans have a traditional song for milking your yak? And yet another to sing while churning said milk into butter? That might sound like the setup for a bad joke, but it’s not. Far from it-especially if you know this: if the Chinese government got wind that you were warbling the yak-milking song (or any traditional Tibetan music) in public, you could be imprisoned. Or maybe tortured. Or killed. Or-how about all three?
I learned all this and more from a fascinating documentary called Tibet in Song, which is really two films in one. Primarily, it is the film that director Ngawang Choephel initially set out to make back in 1995, when he returned for a visit to his homeland after years of exile in India and the United States (his mother had fled Tibet in 1966 with her then 2-year-old son.)
The filmmaker’s intent was to seek out and document the remaining vestiges of traditional Tibetan song and dance, which had become increasingly elusive in the wake of the Cultural Revolution imposed on the country by the Chinese government following the Tibetan Rebellion of 1959.
The first third of the film does deliver a sampling of the region’s folk dances and unique indigenous music, which shares a tonality with Native American chants. One thing it does not share so much in common with is Chinese music. While this latter observation is most certainly not lost on Tibetans, it seems to have been to the Chinese government, which has made concerted efforts, beginning with the Cultural Revolution era and going forward, to replace all traditional Tibetan melodies with Chinese pop songs singing praises to the regime.
One Tibetan interviewee (now an exile) recounts the introduction of radio broadcasts in the 1960s that blasted a steady din of the propagandist pop. Most Tibetans, who are culturally ingrained to express themselves daily in song and dance, had never even seen a radio; it was referred to as “the sound box”. “From that thing, there’s nothing to hear,” his father warned him, “It’s just for transforming ‘us’ into ‘them’.”
The film also recounts a very personal story, precipitated by a profoundly life-changing event that occurred two months into filming. While driving to visit his father, Choephel was stopped at a checkpoint and grilled by Chinese intelligence agents, who confiscated his camera, videotapes and notes. He was immediately accused of “spying” and sentenced to 18 years in prison (no trial).
Undaunted, Choephel continued his project. Fellow prisoners (many of them political dissidents) were happy to share their knowledge of traditional songs, which the director transcribed on cigarette wrappers. When this makeshift archive was discovered and seized by prison officials, Choephel began to commit the songs to memory (shades of Fahrenheit 451).
The studious and mild-mannered Choephel experienced a classic prison conversion, from objective researcher to political activist. “I had joined the (Free Tibet movement),” he recounts in voiceover. Thankfully, after a tireless one-woman campaign by his devoted mother, he was released in 2002, after six years of imprisonment.
Tibet in Song may begin as an academic culture study, but, not unlike the director’s own personal transformation, it becomes an unexpectedly inspirational and moving story. What more could you demand from a film? Singing and dancing? Well, actually…