Monday, September 20, 2010

Heroic Filmmaking: Tibet in Song

It can honestly be said Ngawang Choephel’s debut documentary was over six and a half years in the making. That is how long he was unjustly imprisoned by the Chinese Communist government for the crime of recording traditional Tibetan folk songs. Of course, they called it espionage. What started as an endeavor in ethnomusicology became a much more personal project for Ngawang, ultimately resulting in Tibet in Song (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Though born in Tibet, Ngawang had lived in exile with his mother since the age of two. While he had few memories of his homeland, attending the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts instilled in Ngawang a passion for the traditional music of his country that would cost him his liberty. Though his mother strenuously advised against it, Ngawang fatefully returned to Tibet in hopes of documenting the traditional songs before they were completely lost to posterity.

In Lhasa, Ngawang discovered the unofficial Chinese prohibitions against Tibetan cultural, religious, and linguistic identity had largely succeeded. However, like a Tibetan Alan Lomax, he found people in the provinces, usually the older generations, who were willing to be filmed as they sang and played the music of their ancestors. And then a funny thing happened on the road to Dawa.

Suddenly, Ngawang was arrested and his film was confiscated. For years he endured the abuse of a Communist prison, but he still persisted in learning and singing traditional Tibetan songs. Eventually, the Chinese government relented to the pressure of a remarkable international campaign spearheaded by Ngawang’s mother, releasing the filmmaker, who would finally finish a very different film from what he presumably envisioned.

Song is a remarkable documentary in many ways. It all too clearly illustrates the unpredictable nature of nonfiction filmmaking, as events take a dramatic turn Ngawang was surely hoping to avoid. The film also bears witness to the Communist government’s chilling campaign to obliterate one of the world’s oldest cultures. Particularly disturbing to Ngawang are the ostensive Tibetan cultural revues mounted by the Chinese government that feature plenty of party propaganda but no genuine Tibetan music. In Orwellian terms, they represent an effort to literally rewrite Tibetan culture.

Indeed, what starts as a reasonably interesting survey of Tibetan song becomes a riveting examination of the occupied nation. Ngawang and the other former Tibetan prisoners he interviews have important (and dramatic) stories to tell, many of which express the significance of song to their own cultural identity. One of the few legitimate examples of heroic filmmaking, Song deserves a wide audience. Highly recommended, it opens this Friday (9/24) in New York at the Cinema Village.