A review of “Tibet in Song” and open letter to the film’s director, Ngawang Choephel la
“We won’t waste even a drop….”
Tashi delek Ngawang Choephel la. I just finished seeing your film “Tibet In Song” at the Boulder International Film Festival on February 11th, 2010. I am sorry that you were not able to make the screening because of the latest storm on the east coast, but what would have been the unforgettable force of your presence was well matched by the film on its own. The stunned feeling I had the moment after your film concluded is still with me. The songs, the voices of your people, the brave footage you captured, and the suffering you endured as a political prisoner to make this film still shake my mind and consciousness as I drive home, grab dinner, and sit down to write. That is how powerful, vivid, honest, well-made and ALIVE your film is, and I dare anyone to watch it and still argue that Tibetan culture is not on the brink of extinction or that the forced change it is undergoing is not shameful – I cannot think which is worse, as they both offer a heartbreaking conclusion.
And what might be that heartbreaking conclusion? As your footage presents in all its “ethnographic” authority – that is, documentation of people at their most self-explanatory and raw – our hearts would break over the loss of not just an “ethnicity: Tibetan; but of evidence that human beings (yes, all of us) deserve the right to thrive and sing and dance in the way of our ancestors, as the way to peaceful world-making as we self-determine it. I’d rather see a wrinkled but twinkling grandmother dancing and singing in a dusty chupa than the garish, Chinese-determined Tibetan hybridity of Tseten Dolma wailing in the nightclubs of Lhasa and Chengdu. Ngawang Choephel la, your film reminds us that humans have evolved to “must needs” to commune with our past, and thus come to grips with the purpose of our own present lives – or we will perish in the chaotic alternative.
As “Tibet In Song” unequivocally demonstrates though gripping historic and ethnographic footage, the “chaotic alternative” to tradition for Tibetans – and anyone who supports the Tibetan cause – has been to confront the mind boggling, highly problematic, intrinsically-violent, always-irrelevant and -unjust P.R.C. rule of Tibet, and to live with the fact that such a local-global power arrangement still persists as China’s hegemonic star continues to ascend. But with the incriminating impact and implications promised by such films as Choephel’s (and many other Tibetans I know!), perhaps the artifice of hypocrisy and hype that the Chinese Communist Party has mounted in defense of “its” Tibet (much less its “China”) will groan a little too hard one day under the burden of its own contradictions and karma, and the “chaos” (as bemoaned by one man salvaging the “shattered opera” tradition in the Tashi Sholpa region of central Tibet) will cease to persist in a cloud of rangzen dust.
And that which has fled into exile may be repatriated with each stomp of a dancing foot in Tibetan soil and each melody re-threading its aural way through northern Himalayan mountain air. And that which has grown in the perilous soil of the homeland will once again thrive without fear of the punishment of the sun for not singing the Chinese National Anthem. But in order to live in a world of one less unnecessary, violent and illegal occupation, we have to take the conscious steps to change that which we most certainly can: “we” being Tibetans, Americans, Chinese, Indians, Europeans, Iraqis, Pashtuns – ANYONE willing to stand up against Power that enforces propaganda over posterity, against Rule of Law that enforces dehumanizing domination over meaningful autonomy, much less true independence. The C.C.P. will change its corrupt, outmoded, and myoptic stance against Tibet ONLY if the global powers-that-be-make it impossible not to (are you listening all ye governments who are held by the economic short-and-curlies by the Yuan?). And “should” (it seems too possibly tyrannical to say “when”) this sea change happen, may we see a proliferation of dedicated people and successful projects that not only rescue many other cultures around the world from the brink of extinction, but prove that the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet for a visit (just for starters!) could be “world-making” at its most courageous, peaceful, and just.
This coming Sunday is Valentine’s Day, and on this same day Losar, the Tibetan new year, will begin. This year, more Tibetans than I anticipated will choose not to celebrate it. “No Losar this year!” one of my friends told me when I naively wished him a happy new year after the screening in Boulder this evening. The first ever Losar I celebrated was a “black Losar,” where the usual traditions and customs were not practiced that year (1999) in deference and mourning of a recent death in the family. Last year 2009 was also a black Losar for Tibetans as they commemorated almost 50 years in exile, and, even more immediately, in mourning of their brothers and sisters killed, arrested and imprisoned in the protests of spring 2008 – right before Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. (That the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics will begin on the day after this screening of “Tibet In Song” only adds another note of urgency and serendipity to your film’s message.)
The collective sorrow of the Tibetan people is now evident in another consecutive observance of a black Losar, as well as in the songs Tibetans have composed in the wake of Chinese occupation in general, and prison torture in particular. As a fellow anthropologist and filmmaker, from your film, Ngawang Choephel la, I detected two kinds of self-determination that the Tibetan people are observing and producing in music in exile and under occupation; the first is the mournful, post-1959 shift in song composition. When one former political prisoner sings on camera an endurance hymnal she wrote to the tune of the most reviled Chinese pop songs, “Beijing is a Golden Mountain,” while serving in solitary conferment, we are not at leisure to marvel at the cultural hybridity her composition evidences. Instead, realize all-to-starkly that the new essence of Tibetan folk songs is sorrow, and injustice at the hands of the C.C.P. That Tibetan self-determination must manifest in the expression of such suffering is only made bearable and triumphant by the fact that these same songs carry messages of “not backing down,” and that of the blood spilled by Tibetan freedom fighters, not a “single drop will be wasted.”
The second form of self-determination is, of course, the concerted project to preserve and inherit traditional Tibetan folk songs. In saving these songs, Ngawang Choephel la, you save Tibetan culture, values, and consciousness, of which songs are an “innate manifestation.” Though your first taste of your true homeland, Tibet – a land “fenced ‘round with snow mountains” as a 9th century folk song goes – might have landed you in a Chinese prison, even there “in hell” you found fellow Tibetans still fighting, resisting, existing through song. Even in the currently inescapable claws of the Chinese Communist Party government, or in the chaotic, alienating waters of exile, you managed to “feel” your culture – its music and its enslavement – truly for the first time. I came away from “Tibet In Song” knowing that “true Tibetan cultural essence” – the kind by which we still see it important to define as “ethnicity” – could still survive thanks to the conscious, humbling dedication of key Tibetans. One knows their power and significance when one meets them – be it on screen, in solitary protest, or separated by circumstance of a winter snowstorm that arrived few days before another black Losar.
“Tibet in Song” reminds us of how essential this quixotic thing called “tradition” is, especially when faced with the blatant, infuriating causes of its disappearance by such facist governmental regimes as the Chinese Communist Party (yes, I might have just officially flushed any chance getting a Chinese visa down the drain with that last statement, but nothing compared to the seven years your served in prison, the first year of which you were tortured everyday).
The Tibetan struggle, as so viscerally presented in your film, offers us all a stark example of what this world – along with the Tibetan people – is losing in the march of globalization as marshaled by the (un)ethics of the People’s Republic of China. I feel incensed enough to suggest that we should fret as much over the coming disappearance of Tibetan song, dance, language, art, and – especially – His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama as we do the polar ice caps and bears. Nothing is “only” local or cliché anymore, and even if we intentionally set-out to preserve something in the name of global “diversity,” let us get past the anxiety of fakery and the postmodern “implications of it all” to embrace the fact that we at least acted on foresight when we could.
Free Tibet! If the U.S. can repatriate a panda, President Obama should not only have free reign to meet with the Dalai Lama, but to do it in that tabooed little yellow room in the top corner of the Potala Palace in Lhasa city, currently the provincial capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China.
Bono once crooned on the last song of U2’s only hard rock album _War_: “How long / to sing this song?” Even as they wrote songs about war, they wanted peace, not just for Northern Ireland but for a world still in the grip of the Cold War (1983); just as Tibetans sing about occupation but want freedom to this day. This connection came to mind toward the end your film, “Tibet In Song,” as it fully embraced what seems to be the “new” folk songs of Tibet – songs of sorrow and unforeseen end to struggle. To Ngawang Choephel la and all the other singers of Tibet – keep on singing! But how long to sing this song?
Yours in solidarity,