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If Only for a Moment

Reflections on participating in the Regeneration Project “ethnographic pop-up theatre” at the 2016 annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association

By Tamar V.S. McKee, Ph.D.

Located on the unceded territory of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh First Nation, my current home of Squamish, British Columbia (where I serve as a professor in anthropology at Quest University Canada) is a far cry from the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. While social media brought the #NoDAPL protest into my everyday consciousness since August 2016, I often felt this physical distance acutely when adamant postings and strident conversations across social media platforms like Facebook only felt like I was screaming into the wind. I felt the action of solidary, but did anyone else receive it? As we watched people flock to Sacred Stone Camp and affiliated camps, my husband and I so wanted to jump into our van and head east, but life with a young family and the oncoming winter told us this was not wise or feasible.

That is why when I attended the 2016 AAA meetings in Minneapolis and heard of the planned Standing Rock / #NoDAPL rally, I found myself outside the convention center where the meetings were being held, joining the circle of other attendees holding banners, signs, and flyers to show their solidarity with the Water Protectors. Occurring just a week after the election of Donald Trump, being able to finally join my solidarity in-person with others felt doubly critical and healing – if only for a cold but solemn moment in the Minneapolis chill.

So when Deb stepped up to the megaphone and announced her ethnographic pop-up theatre initiative and its intention to raise consciousness and donations for Standing Rock, I knew immediately that I was in. By Deb’s invitation, we were being called to not only further stand in solidarity with the Water Protectors but to literally act for them – and in the process raise some much-needed funds. Finally, I did not feel like I needed to scream into the wind anymore.

Deb’s session began early the next morning, and I arrived to join a number of anthropologists already in the room. Contrary to the many sessions I attended at the meetings, this group felt and (quite frankly) looked different than my usual AAA cohort or my colleagues back in Squamish. It would take more rigorous research and reflection than this piece allows to look into why that was, but all I knew at the time and remains with me still, was that it was refreshing and – again, this word comes up for me – healing to join such diverse company for the cause of Standing Rock.

As we all formed a circle and moved into the warm-up exercises guided by Deb, another sense of distance slowly emerged for me, reminding me of a childhood when I acted in local theater groups back in my home state of Colorado. My longing to become a performer had long since been eclipsed by the academic path, but in that convergence of the AAAs, Standing Rock, and Deb’s Re-Generation Initiative, the two identities and desires could at last coexist. In audionotes I took after the experience, I shared: “Felt really good to be able to express towards something I felt so personally, spiritually, and politically passionate about. Such a good, revitalizing combination.”

Warm-ups complete, Deb then led us into the heart of what the Ethnographic Theatre of the Contemporary would be for our specific performance. “WATER IS LIFE!” was the slogan we were to effervescently manifest by performing together. What did such a performance look like? First, a selection of the attendees were called upon by Deb to read pieces both written by themselves and others. They were a combination of spoken word poetry about Standing Rock and attendant, timely co-struggles in the U.S. (such as #blacklivesmatter), or excerpts from fieldwork interviews indexing Australian Aboriginal resistance movements to natural resource extraction and political oppression. Then Deb read an excerpt from a conversation she had while at Standing Rock with Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Iroquois Confederacy. “We know those dogs, they fed us to those dogs,” Lyons told her, in tandem reference to the mercenary dogs who were sicked on Water Protectors in North Dakota in September 2016, as well as the violence wrought by Columbus’ first encounters with indigenous resistance in the now-U.S.

After these pieces were read, Deb gave us our first “scene” to act out: that of repeating a phrase we heard in, or was inspired by, one of the pieces just read. We were to walk around each other while repeating a phrase, encouraged to change direction when the moment felt right, and even change the phrase we were saying if we heard something from someone else that bore repeating or reinterpreting. With that, on Deb’s cue we were sent into frenetic motion, “scurrying” as I recalled it in my audio notes. What did I end up repeating? It actually was not anything I heard in the pieces or the phrases my fellow performers were saying. What “bubbled up” for me as if it “had a life of its own,” however, was still in reaction to everything we were doing:


“It’s too painful, it’s too painful, it’s too painful…”


After chanting this around the room for a bit, it came to me to hold my hands up to the sides of my face like I had blinders, as if to say, “it’s too painful [I don’t want to see].” I do not know if anyone else said the same thing over and over again, or had a repetative, performative signature action; I just stayed in my tunnel vision and mantra. Every now and then, if what I overhead from someone came across loud and clear, I’d shift my mantra to: “stop saying that, it’s too painful…”

Why did these discursive and performative gestures become my form of embodied expression and, ultimately, my contribution to our official performance? As I reflected upon this in my audionotes:


[…]the whole point was to act like someone who was too afraid, too cowardly, too emotionally-incapable to see beyond herself, to be able to bear witness, much less do anything, for the surrounding suffering and rage. Afflicted from afar, called into seeing via Facebook and the distance, the privilege bubble (and then some) – but could also hide behind, disconnect from it with the swipe of a screen or the click of a button. “It calls upon me in ways that I say are too painful… Would require a painful extraction from my everyday apathy, compliance with the structures that enable me but constrain the others… It’s too painful to confront, to change, to engage, to agree with your side, to acknowledge beyond the active silence and response in my head…”


In addition to acting out someone who was scared of confrontation (to say the least), I also felt as though my performance could be read in a radically juxtaposing way:


My performance could also be doubly read as speaking for the victims of the problems (Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, Trump, violent hegemony and oppression, etc) we were entangling as a performative group: “it’s too painful” could also be read as someone feeling so hurt, so victimized, so threatened, so disempowered as to feel crippled by the pain. Traumatized into inaction.


But during one point in rehearsal, when Deb then called out to “stop!” and address the person we ended up facing, another, more trouble juxtaposition showed itself to me:


At one point in our scurrying rehearsal, Deb asked us to “stop!” and turn to whomever we were closest to and repeat our sayings. I ended up next to an African-American woman who, during our name introduction exercises, said her name (it now eludes me) and then “fight!” with a fisticuffs gesture. She repeated her [rehearsal] phrase, “I can’t breathe!” and I countered with “its too painful.” As we kept repeating our phrases, so much came out for me. It was like she was telling me there was a problem – I CAN’T BREATHE – and I was copping out on her: “It is too painful to help you. I cannot help you because it is too painful.” Our skin color suddenly became symbolic vehicles, and we were performing representations of how different racial populations approached and experienced social discord [when “white” and “black” were placed in apartheid-like hierarchical value to each other]. African-American communities and individuals in the US [are] crying out for air to breathe both in symbolic and visceral ways. “Come bear witness! Come climb out of that bubble!” Euro-American communities and individuals, seeing this pain and suffering, both acknowledge it but ultimately privilege their own pain over any action or lasting solidarity. Reaffirmation of these blinders.

We were acting, but with every repetition of the words I felt the meaning of them shift and grow. I did start feeling like I was a white person who would truly say “It’s too painful, I can’t deal with this.” I live and know this history a lot more closely than an African-American one; I felt indicted for the 500 year old privilege my skin color has conferred onto people appearing as I do. I cannot represent beyond this, but I can help represent beyond this. What is that fine line between acting a position and being that position…?


Such radical, and revealing, reflexivity about our situatedness as performers and symbolism as characters was but one aspect of what made our performances “ethnographic.” Our performances were also “interpretations of interpretations,” as Geertz always reminds us, for at key moments in our rehearsal there were other pauses to consider what we were doing – but this time as a group when we were imagining and constructing group “tableaus.”

After our individual mantric scurrying, Deb then coached us on how to make “tableaus” and why. Collectively, we decided on isolating out four phrases from our scurry session to illustrate in groups of 4-6 fellow participants. I ended up helping illustrate – “Our voices take flight, with Dakota we fight!” – with the author of the spoken word piece from which this saying came from, a woman who I had done eye-contact exercises with in the warm-ups, and the woman with whom I had previously exchanged the eye-opening (no pun intended) phrases with. What serendipity to be in this group! Our tableau came together so effortlessly (as I think everyone’s did), even though intrinsic to the exercise is that no one plans together ahead of time what they are going to do. Instead, Deb just counted to “three” and we all struck a pose that we felt best illustrated our group’s phrase. Each group performed our tableau poses for each other, and the groups who were not performing analyzed the performing group’s tableau for how it gestured to the chosen phrase in what was evidently an embodied, symbolic, and discursive entanglement.

Finally it came time to perform this first in “public,” which became whomever passed by our performance space in the lobby of the Minneapolis Convention Centre. Deb designated this space with a line of “Water is Life” flyers and nondescript bag in which people could offer donations, as we were essentially busking for money. “Water is life!” she called out to commence the performance, and we began our mantras and scurrying about. “It’s too painful….” “I can’t breathe!” “We know those dogs…” murmured across our performative mass until Deb called out the signifying “WATER IS LIFE!” and we all gestured towards the reading of the spoken word poem about Standing Rock, including our tableau phrase, “our voices take flight, with Dakota we fight!” After the spoken pieces were read, we then performed our tableaus in pre-determined succession, ending with “the struggle ends in our beloved country!” which I took to be inspired by the piece about Australian Aboriginal struggles over political sovereignty and respect.

And what of our tableau, “our voices take flight, with Dakota we fight!”? What did our serendipitously-configured group come up with? In the final performance, our tableaus ended up coming together in three counts instead of just the instantaneous freeze we started with. For our first count, we all started low to the ground, as if we were fighting off boots and batons that wanted to crush us. On count “two,” we started to rise, emerging from our abuse, ready to take action. On count “three” we hit our final and cumulating poses. Some of us stayed low, still fighting off assault. Others started literally reaching out as if to allies standing right next to them or as witnesses just a few steps away. For my part, I paradoxically did what could be interpreted as the exact opposite of my “It’s too painful…” blinders walk. I shot up to stand tall, arms extended to the sky with hands wide open, every muscle in my body taught with purpose. My face was cast skyward and my mouth was wide open, screaming to… To whom? Was it the wind I felt I’d been yelling into all the months before as I watched dogs attack Water Protectors? Or was I screaming at “the eyes of the world” like in the song “Biko,” written by Peter Gabriel, to really SEE the mercenary-style corporate violence being met with prayer and peaceful resistance? Or was I pleading to the heavens, to the Creator, to look out for us in our precarious times, to save us from each other, to instill the wisdom in us to help each other…

In the actual performance, I ended up holding this position for many, many minutes (I did not count) in a row. My mouth grew dry from the silent screaming. My eyes burned with holding them so open, like a fierce tantric diety. My muscles ached to be released from their taughtness, especially my neck as it held my face skyward for so long. But it was the least I could do, this offering of body, time, and energy. It challenged myoptic thinking and reacting. It confronted and appropriated the once-stultifying pain. And this offering – at least for me, but I also hope for others – healed the distance between silent screams and standing in solidarity. At least, if only for a moment.


Readers’ Comments: A Follow-Up to “When Conscience Meets Capital”

Churchill Downs

Looking at the grandstand and famed twin spires of Churchill Downs from the starting gate

My essay, “When Conscience Meets Capital,” garnered a lot of comments through this blog from a variety of perspectives and reactions. I also engaged in many exchanges via Facebook too, but those were more conversational, reactive, and ephemeral. This is not to discount such discourse, but I found the comments I got through the blog to be valuable in that people were self-motivated to write to me and share their perspective. So, the following essay is comprised of these voices (anonymous) with minimal interference or interpretation on my part. For organization’s sake, I have grouped the comments into four sections: “There Is Only a Dark Side,” “There Is Light, Afterall,” “Criticism of the Essay Itself,” and “Appreciation of the Essay.”

 I especially found the criticism leveled at the essay to be challenging, exhilarating, and ultimately the stuff that makes one a better scholar and more honest human being. One commenter questioned why I did not engage with the issue of drugs more, pointing out that reliance and abuse of such substances is a society-wide issue, not just one contained to racing. Great point, and an issue I do cover more in-depth in my dissertation, though I stop short of linking the use of equine performance-enhancing drugs to larger, human societal trends for the sake of staying on task with my primary research data and thesis of redemptive capital. (If you are reading this, I have friends who are amazing scholars of drug culture I can refer you to.)

 Another commenter took me to task more philosophically, arguing that a being’s ultimate value should simply be one’s “will-to-live.” Such ideas are grounded in the Humanist tradition of knowledge that emerged out of Europe circa the Renaissance, and while I too tend towards a “live and let live” approach to life personally, I know (via my research as an anthropologist and a life as human being who also knows what it is like to have one’s redemptive capital depleted) that we live in a much more divided, contingent, and brutal world than that. What exactly is “will” – is there ever an acultural, ahistorical, unproblematically universal definition of this? And what of those beings who lose that will and would rather die? What of their rights and existential implications then?   This is what I mean by “contingent.” Also, redemptive capital is meant to be something of an “oxymoron” – but not as “unfortunate” as this commenter suggests. We live in a conflicted world, torn between conscience and capital, and “redemptive capital” aims to index that – not come out somewhere on the sublime level where all problems are solved by one side triumphing over the other. I have been reading a lot of bell hooks’ work in the writing of my dissertation as she is not only an amazing scholar of feminism, class, and race in the U.S., she also hails from Kentucky. A quote from the chapter “Kentucky is My Fate” (page 6) in her book Belonging seems appropriate here:

If one has chosen to live mindfully, then choosing a place to die is as vital as choosing where and how to live.

 As the Kentucky Derby will be running this coming Saturday, May 3rd, I also offer this essay as a revisitation of where Thoroughbred horse racing stands as it is about to enact one of its most important rituals and races. This is a sad Derby year for me personally. Not only because of the PETA video and the uproar (and ongoing polemics) it caused, but also because the horse I rooted for in 2012, Dullahan, passed away from colic last October 2013 after just having been retired from racing. He was the half-brother to Mine that Bird, who is apparently being (problematically) valorized at Churchill Downs for the Derby this year, as the first comment below indicates…


“There will be no redemption, come May. The Downs will welcome Leonard Blach, owner of Mine That Bird, a Kervorkian proponent of horse slaughter for human consumption. He will arrive, with an impressively decorated bus and Mine That Bird, in tow. The Downs will show the movie “50-1” where Blach and Mark Allen (Bird’s owners) are portrayed as small-time players who make the Big Time and win the Derby. Churchill Downs knows full well that Blach is the Expert Witness for Valley Meat in Roswell, NM. A decrepit slaughter house, 2 minutes behind Blach and Allen’s Breeding Barns. When opened, Valley Meat plans to kill 121 horses per DAY for human consumption. Churchill Downs is fully aware but is holding their breath, that it not be made public, at least till the Derby Party is over.”


 “How it has been forgotten the very fact that these majestic beauties have carried the human to war & died for it; how they died in underground mines for the human needs; how they labored for human food 20 hours per day…and now…now…they are being used for gambling, like cards or dice or anything that CAN JUST BE THROW AWAY, DISCARDED like a SOMETHING…where have our beautiful, majestic PARTNERS from decades together with and  for us, where have they gone? WHAT HAVE WE DONE??



“The sport of Kings disgraceful fall from grace is taking it’s toll on everyone involved in the horse racing industry. Time to clean it up once & for all. Stop racing babies & there will not be a need for most of the drug used & there will be far less injuries to treat. Plus the drugs given that have no effect except to harm the horses….here is on vet’s view…    Quote  I am honored to have permission to post this answer to my question “What is your opinion on thyroid medication in race horses?” the answer was as follows:

“Trainers administer thyroid hormone to their horses with the hope that it will be a PED. As you know, it will increase lean muscle mass, increase the basal metabolic rate (HR, BP, etc) and eventually cause nervousness and anxiety which these inexpert trainers read as the horse is ” ready to run” when in fact, it is a sign of toxicity. The international governing body for all other equine sports, the FEI, has put thyroxine on its controlled substances list as having the potential to be a PED. I also believe it belongs on the banned substances list in horse racing. The other reason I have been told it is given to racehorses is due to the fact that abuse of cobalt as an EPO like substance, can cause low thyroid activity. So the bottom line is we need to enforce the standards of practice for vets which would require a blood test documenting hypothyroidism before an individual horse could be prescribed the medication. Then regular tests would need to be done to be sure the supplementation was adequate. In nearly 30 years in practice I have never had a patient under 10 years old with even borderline thyroid hormone levels. And never in a racehorse. I do regular screening for endocrine assessment and they are always high normal as we would expect a young thoroughbred to be. Thank you very much for caring about this issue. We need an army to confront the corrupt practices.”

~ Dr. Sheila Lyons, Founder and Director, The American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation…unquote”


“Thank you for this perceptive essay on horse racing. I have often decried the culture of the racetrack where magnificent animals are treated as machinery, prone to mechanical breakdown and kept on the track with quick fixes until they crash and burn.

The culture of racing is one where people lose their humanity by increments. Being competitive means taking advantage of drugs and procedures that ease pain and hide injuries only to move a horse from barn to track prematurely. There is no time for natural healing. No time for kindness. No incentive for ethical veterinary practice. No regard for horses and jockeys.

The horse that forges to the lead in a race is said to have heart. But the  trainer, the veterinarian and the owner that used drugs and cruelty to get him to the starting gate are themselves heartless.”


“Horses have no hope while humans continue to look at them from the view point of what they can get out of them. Nobody asks me what I am I doing with my cat, and if it is being wasted. Of course, there’s a huge financial difference in the up keep of horses and most other animals. At what stage will people realize that they Did get their pound of flesh out of horses hundreds of years ago. The history of humans and their relationship with the horse, is in general, an awful reflection of unrelenting human greed.”



“How’s this for redemptive qualities of the thoroughbreds and of the industry?  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJqfopve7CE The industry is beginning to care and what is happening is often very, very good.”


“Everything about the sport of racing is taking it’s toll on ALL involved…time to clean this industry up once & for all…”

“Thoroughbreds. To a shy girl who felt more at home with horses and books than parties and proms, they represented all that was beautiful and courageous about a world that could often be painfully cruel.

I was, and at times still am, that girl who is in love with horses, especially Thoroughbreds. What  happened this past week will help to shape the future of this sport. Please note that I said “sport”, not industry.

My bachelor’s degree in Animal Science views most human-nonhuman animal relationships in the context of industry. The dairy industry. The poultry industry. The Thoroughbred industry.

Could this be the problem with racing? If we view racing as an “industry’, are these horses no more than machines that are “disposed of” once they break down?

I am glad that a light is shining on the dark, dirty secrets of some parts of the backstretch.

Whether that light will be bright and strong enough to ignite the necessary change is the question yet to be answered.

There are good people on the track and the farms who do love and care for their horses. I worked with them, and hope to count myself in their number.

I want to be an agent of change for the sport. The focus of my master’s studies in Anthrozoology is humane retirement solutions for Thoroughbred race horses. This is the least I can do for the horses whose courage I hope to emulate.”



“As an anthropologist, I expected you to take a wider view of the use of drugs and veterinarian practices on the racetrack. I am not speaking about illegal drugs, but about the ones which are legal, such as lasix. Let me say first, that I pony horses on the racetrack. I have never owned or trained a thoroughbred. So I think I have a unique viewpoint. My income does not depend on whether the horses win or lose. I have no stake in their performance results, but I’m there everyday and witness their daily routines. I personally think there is way too much medication and medical procedures on the track. But I think the problem goes much deeper than the racetrack; it goes right to our society’s belief in and use of drugs. I thought you, as an anthropologist would understand this connection. Society as a whole relies on drugs instead of healing for so many things. In small amounts and in specific instances, drugs can be very beneficial. But they are misused when they are used in a “cure-all” blanketing way. It has been my experience, that most trainers give medications in order to help their horses. Not to help them win at all costs, but to be healthier and more comfortable. PETA would paint all pain-killing meds as abusive, but I would be willing to bet that almost every one of them have taken aspirin on occasion. It’s a matter of degree, and a matter of being able to know where to draw the line. At what point does the use of medication, or of medical procedures stop being beneficial and become abusive? For most trainers and vets, it isn’t about bad intent, or being unfeeling, it’s about carrying what in small amounts is beneficial, too far. Human medicine is just as guilty of this trend as veterinary medicine. More is always better, or better to be safe than sorry. Take the anti-depressants, the sleeping pills, put the kids on ADHD meds, etc. It’s a bad societal mind-set rather than just a race track one.”


“The author seeks a middle ground morally between the philosophy of reverence for life, which says that the value of a living being is sustained by its own will-to-live and that of Aristotle, who said that animals were only things that have their value assigned to them by their owners. She uses the unfortunate oxymoron “redemptive capital” to attempt to balance the contradiction between a moral outlook and a monetary one suggestive of getting a return on an investment. But between the outlook that a horse sustains its own value by its own will-to-live and that of the person who assesses it according to his judgement about its “redemptive value” there is ultimately no middle ground. A choice must be made. Perhaps all indeed is darkness in the world of horse racing. Foals are torn away from their mothers and given to nurse mare foals. Foals with less “redemptive value” are slaughtered. Horses are raced too early out of owner greed with the consequence that horses suffer injuries. Horses who are judged to have no “redemptive value” meaning return for their investment are sent to slaughter if they do not promise to win money on the racetrack. “Redemptive value” is a disingenuous term. It suggests that horses must still be looked at a return on an investment of some kind, whether monetary or one of conscience. But horses don’t exist in order to offer anyone opportunities for “redemptive value”. They exist, like each human being and give value to their own lives simply because they will-to-live. This means each horse seeks to express its own nature freely and to seek joy and avoid pain and the fear of death. Is it possible that the need to show some light in the dark world of horse racing is simply motivated by the fear that the money lobbying power of the race horse industry is too great to be defeated ? There is no middle ground in some contradictions. Either a horse has value because of its own pursuit of life liberty and happiness or it has some value, including “redemptive value” assigned to it by either a God or human being playing the role of God over Nature.”


“An endoscopy, as shown at 1:07, has nothing to do with shooting drugs up the nostrils, as you put it. On the contrary, it shows there was enough invested in the horse’s health to investigate what, if any, problems were causing the horse’s poor performance.” (Author’s note: was thinking of how some drugs ARE administered nasally, not mistaking this for the depicted endoscopy that evaluates the integrity of equine airways)


“how can we humanely end the lives of cows,goats,sheep,and pigs for human or animal consumption but we cannot for a equine? how can we humanely end the lives of unwanted pets for burial in the dump but cannot use there remains for anything of purpose?”



“I saved an OTTB. I require nothing more from him than he his happy to give on any day. He is more than worth my “investment”. I thank you for this article.”


“It is only limiting to think that we are not all connected by a cord from  my heart  through a loop in others we are in this world together and what effects one person or one animal  effects all of us it is not possible for one person to change horse racing but it is possible  for one person to change and help  change to happen. Let us start the change by being responsible owners that communicate their values and expectations to their trainers becoming cautionary not reactionary. If you care about your horse express it by your presence. It is our,the owners racehorse not the trainers. Be involved for now til Usada or some governing body is in place that is what we can do for racing and our horse. Love your article.”

Three Springs

Extraordinarily written account of life as Sherpas serving the Everest expedition culture and the many tendrils this (exploitative?) business weaves through villages, families, and consciousnesses. Brought me back to my research and filming days in the Himalayas, and the same trepidation about what right and responsibility I had to be there.




When there are gatherings in our valley, the women sit with the women and the men sit with the men, and the children tear about evading adult arms that reach out to obstruct their fun. The men form a long line on low benches along the front wall of the house, patriarchs sitting at the end closest to the fireplace with the wide-legged weariness of ageing masculinity; down through the established householders with their roars of laughter, past the young fathers bouncing sticky toddlers on their laps, through the self-conscious new and prospective grooms, to the awkward youths who cram together and snicker and mutter and jostle each other.

Everyone wears down jackets.

In such a line as this, a gambler would have good odds that any man, picked at random, has stood atop of Everest; chances better still that he has been partway up the mountain…

View original post 2,915 more words


(Author’s Note: I wrote this short story back in early 2007 as a way to come to terms with the death of my childhood horse.  I am republishing it here, seven years later, in commemoration of 2014 being the Year of the Horse.)



The horse that gave me wings during my childhood is dying.  He is going to be buried in the pasture of friends who took him in after he turned up lame.  A pasture perched on the edge of the great big sea of the Colorado Great Plains.  I imagine his spirit galloping with the force of the wind, and someday I will climb upon his back and ride with him once again.


I was housesitting out at my parents’ ranch the morning Christmas 2006 bloomed, the first “white” Christmas we had since I was a little girl.  My parents were out in north-central California, visiting my brother and his family.  My grandmother, who I would be celebrating the day with later over brunch and dinner, was at her house in downtown Boulder.  With my human family dispersed, I had my animal family instead.  Brio and Willa, two black labs from a long lineage of labs bred at my parents’ ranch, sneezed and shook their ears expectantly the second they saw my eyes were open.  Wishbone, a Border Collie / Golden Retriever mix I was watching for a married couple that consisted of two of my best friends, simply gazed steadily at me, a slight, non-threatening curl in his lip that spoke of expectations as well.  When I arose from bed, Wish let out his characteristic speak-squeal, Willa bounced on her front feet, and Brio’s slapping tail sent her backend sideways, knocking into the other dogs.

The bedroom door opened, and the race began – first to the front door of the house.  Waiting for me to unlock and open it was almost unbearable with Brio now joining Wish in a much less cute rendition of squealing, and Willa bouncing, bouncing, bouncing.  Now on the opposite side of the glass front door, I was watched with the intensity of first year medical students in their first anatomy class: “now she’s putting on the shoes: we’re waiting for the left one to go on – oh, it’s on!  Now for the gloves – why does she have to wait and put every single finger in?!”  Once prepped for venturing outside into an environment with at least two feet of snow on the ground, I opened the front door.  More squealing and jumping.  I was followed like a rock star down the front walk, across the driveway to the garage, fans squealing and jumping on me the entire way.  I entered the garage through the “human” door, and a hush fell over the crowd.  Suddenly, the garage door roared open, and the fans bum-rushed into the garage like it was Wembley Stadium.  Willa grabbed one of the sticks she kept handy in a bucket full of sticks.  Brio was now screaming.  Wishbone, ever the gentlemen in his natural, all-body tuxedo coat, observed my actions silently with a more pronounced lip curl, as though he was about to start singing “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” as I dished up their breakfasts.

For the labs, breakfast was over in two gulps – one for the green beans they ate to keep the weight off their hips, and one for the dry food that was, well, just more food.  Wishbone ate his dry food without complaint, but keep eyeing me to see if I was getting ready to serve up dessert: dried pigs’ ears.  Once Wish was finished, it was time to “sit, SIT!”  Only until all three dogs were sitting before me, did I grab the red bag that contained dessert.  At the sound of the plastic crunching in my hands, all three dogs leap up with excitement: Willa bouncing, Brio tilted sideways, and Wishbone with his Elvis sneer.  “Sit, SIT!” I commanded, and they obeyed.  First Willa – she grabbed the pig’s ear delicately with her mouth and bolted out of the garage.  Brio snapped up the ear like she was auditioning for the Discovery Channel.  Wishbone allowed the ear to hover in front of his mouth, his sneer simultaneously registered disbelief and delight, and then he took it, wondering what good fortune he had acquired to be dog-sat by Aunt Tamar.  “Merry Christmas!” I cried after the departing dogs, each seeking a space in the snow to savor the crispy, greasy remnants of a pig’s external hearing devices.

As I picked up the dogs’ dishes, I heard a sound inaudible to most human beings.  A second later, my cat, Hootie, shimmered into the eating area and took her place on the shelf where she was fed.  A little dry food and a full can of “Savory Salmon Mix” in her dish (it was Christmas), she vocalized her cat-specific appreciation and dug in.  I returned the compliment in a dialect incomprehensible to both her and me (it just felt intuitive) and left the garage to feed the horses.

Ladore, a black Quarter Hourse mare who was the last in my mother’s lineage of race horses, pawed the green gate to her corral in anticipation.  Her daughter, Rosie, a spunky paint horse with brown and white body markings and a shock of black mane and eyes, gave me her “What’s up, T-mar?” neigh, which I followed with a song, again intelligible only to the intuition, that carried the melody of an old Duran Duran song.  George, another paint horse (this time with the shock of one blue eye and terrible trail riding abilities) straddled the snowy ground and peed once he saw me coming.  Egypt, a solid bay gelding as fast a lightning, put on his Scrooge face, tucking his ears back, his eyes clouding with ill humor.  When my dad’s new horse, a towering Fox Trotter by the name of “Chilly,” emerged from the barn and entered Egypt’s radius, Egypt shot his neck out like a Saharan cobra and nipped at Chilly.  Chilly, who I call “Chilly-horse-asuarus” because of his dinosaur like stature, side-jumped from Egypt, good humor and hunger still flashing in his eyes.

“Merry Christmas!”  I cried, and all I got back was “I’m hungry!” neighs, foot-stomping, post-elimination groans, and ears that would not face forward until breakfast was served.  Each horse got two flakes of grass hay, rounded out by a Christmas treat – a short pour of grain.  I threw the hay first, yelling at Egypt as he chased George and Chilly around after each round of hay was thrown enough for the three of them.  When I emerged from the barn with the bucket of grain, each horse must have known exactly what I was doing, because they had forgotten about the hay and were at the fence, watching my every move.  Commando training would not have prepared me for what it took to distribute the grain – I was dodging horse teeth and rear ends like a ninja.  Good thing I can pack a verbal punch, because for as long as I have known these horses – even Chilly caught on immediately – they knew I meant business through voice power alone.  And they knew that I had nothing but love and respect for them too – enough carrots in the middle of the night after coming home from enough beers formed us a bond that was unbreakable.

Horses fed, I began walking back to the house, preceded by dogs who found no greater joy in life than living in the moment where they could simultaneously dive through snow like a porpoise and strain the snow through their mouths like a baleen whale.  Once at the house, I began strapping on my cross-country ski boots, again watched like an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.”  When I emerged with skis and poles in hand, you would have thought I was one big walking pig’s ears at the response I got from my fan club: squealing, screaming, bouncing – I felt like Bono at Madison Square Garden.  Strapped in, we headed west, across the bridge over the creek that cut through my parents’ backyard, and to a trail on “open space” – land set aside by the city of Boulder to never be developed – except for grazing, cross-country skiing, and a wickedly enforced dog control program.  Sometimes I was so nervous about what constituted bad behavior about my dogs that when I saw them pee on “open space” I wondered if I should be collecting it lest it should be considered polluting substance.

Once we crossed the creek and the western-most pasture on my parents’ ranch, I ducked through the wires of the fence separating their property from “open space,” and suddenly I was exactly that, on open space.  The front range of the Rocky Mountains rose before me as it characteristically does in Boulder – jabs of red sandstone in the shape of the flat face of a pressing iron, myriad frosted trees, bluebird sky, and the contours of a mountain range that I had witnessed so many times at so many different times of day at so many different points in life that I have come to regard this eight mile track of mountains and foothills from Eldorado Canyon to Flagstaff Mountain as an altar upon which I have laid countless prayers and dreams.  As I paused to wish the mountains and open space a merry Christmas, dogs were porpoising past me, seeking a beginning to our trek on Christmas morning.

A fresh snow had fallen, about six inches, on Christmas Eve, covering up the trail that had been there just yesterday.  I had been on this trail so many times, though, that I could eye ball a path in the generic canvas of the fresh snow.  Nothing gives you a greater workout, however, than breaking trail.  Luckily, Brio is the type of dog who likes to trail blaze, and so I followed in the wake of her footsteps except when I snagged a rock or thought she was going off course.  We climbed steadily, the mountains’ presence becoming closer and more palpable with our approach.    I thought of all the different ways I had seen this trail.  What it is like when you first heard the Meadowlark in the spring, sitting on a dried head of a yucca blossom, singing greenness into the spikes of the plant.  When the bluebirds flit down the wire on the fence as you approach, then realize that you are going their way, so they take off and fly at length in a way only birds can do.  Or when you are heading home on a glorious run, the sun having just sent, sending rays of light onto the bellies of clouds that make you think of the aura borealis; the type of sunset that you are so enthralled by that you don’t watch where you are going as closely as you normally do, and you clip your foot on a rock; and when you finally get around to picking yourself up from the ensuing fall, you realize you have torn your hamstring so badly you think you have broken your leg from the pain you feel.  It was exactly this kind of fall I took on this very trail about four months prior that had kept me from coming out here in the ritualistic way I once had.  But today, instead of breaking my leg, I was breaking trail, my breath as laborious as it would be if I were on a good run.

I wanted to make it to a spot I usually turned around on a short run, but as I watched the dogs dive and disappear, dive and disappear in the snow, I knew that the trail only got deeper and that I was ready to turn around.  “We earned our turns!”  I exclaimed as I turned around and glided out on the trail I had just cut for us.  A moment later the dogs were passing me like dolphins next to a sailboat.  I sailed down the trail, the dense crunch I repeatedly heard on the way up was replaced by the shimmer of skis across sugary snow.  As we went through a family of Pondersosa Pine, I suddenly smelled their vanilla perfume on the wings of an incredibly pleasant, soft, warm breeze.  Growing up in Boulder, one of the strongest memories I have of the natural world at wintertime is the unlikely combination of fresh snowfall being kissed by a “Chinook” a warm breeze.  I figured I had not noticed the Chinook on my way up the trail because I was not traveling in the direction of the wind – but had I not been traveling west, toward the mountains, and slightly south where most Chinnok winds come from?  I paused to consider the unexpected warmth of the wind and found myself at the top of a ski-able little hill.  The dogs did not know what to do with me as I careened down the hill – Brio dodged my path on the way down just in time.  But by the second try, they got the picture, and while I glided alongside the streams of the wind, they dove and tumbled down hill with joy only a dog can communicate in their own particular body language.  After a few more times up and down that small hill below the pine tree family, we set out for home, the Chinook guiding us the entire way.

A few days later, when my family had reconstituted itself through grandmother, parents, daughter, and the barnyard menagerie, my dad informed me that Burrlito had died on Christmas Day.  Burrlito had been the horse I grew up with, and we had both been the same age.  He was 28 when he died – a good, long life for a horse.  We’d been out riding one day when I was in high school when he tore his hamstring and turned up lame.  We sent him out to pasture with some friends who had property on the prairie, close to the Colorado-Kansas border.  “Burr” had first been a Racing Quarter Horse, and then been brought into our family as a roping horse for my dad.  Then somehow we got the notion I could train him in Dressage, so at the age of twelve I was saved some of the horrors of adolescence by training a racehorse/rodeo horse/Quarter Horse to stick it to those warm blooded, predigreed horses and their riders.  Being first and foremost a racehorse, Burr had come to master his left-sided gait like a champ, so our only real issue in training had been his picking up his right gait.  He passed the higher levels of Dressage tests beautifully, but it was always when I asked for this fundamental, right-sided gait without any complexity that his racehorse instinct kicked in too greatly.  I remember getting so mad, so frustrated at him when we would ride on our own in our neighbors’ arena that he would just stop and not move an inch, no matter how much I urged him to go on – and this time I have to ashamedly say I had not yet mastered the firm-compassion of my voice-only power of persuasion.  It was as if he was saying: “I’ll do anything for you except to have you get your way through anger.”

Our best times, however, were when we would flaunt our training and just go ride.  I grew up in a neighborhood full of “bridle paths” and we had a particular route that took us to the top of a plateau that not only overlooked our entire neighborhood, but the entire Boulder Valley, including the contours of the mountain range that would later become so familiar and sacred to me.  We would take in the view, and then turn it loose.  Burrlito was first and foremost a racehorse, and on these occasions I would let him be that once again.  Not flying lead changes, no gathering trot from A to B, then a posting trot from X to Z.  Across that plateau, Burrlito would shift gears until he would “breeze” a term especially given to the gait racehorses achieve when they are going their ultimate fastest.  Tears would stream down my cheeks, and often I would let go of the reins and just hold on to his mane.  Back then, before the development of “open space” with trailheads, trail markers, and bags provided to pick up your dog’s doing, Burr and I ran until he just couldn’t go anymore.  Then we would turn around, and a slower run, we would come home.

When I heard Burr died on Christmas day, I thought back to the Christmas when I got my first Dressage riding bridle, complete with this bizarre bit called a “snaffle.”  I could not get my britches and boots on fast enough to go out with Burr and try it out.  Photos show us riding in the round-pen at our old house, me with embarrassingly styled bangs, and Burr with his head up high, wondering what the hell was in his mouth and what I wanted him to do with it.  Like I said, somehow we got good enough to place in our first show, but that was all we ever did.  I think preoccupations of being a teenager set in, and I suddenly became painfully aware that not only would I ever join “Pony Club” with a Quarter Horse with too small of hooves, but that I did not want to join “Pony Club” if it meant giving up Burr.  So instead, we stuck with trail riding.  When my parents’ moved to the ranch they live at now, I was a sophomore in high school.  I used to go over there after school and ride the horses.  One day, when I was riding Burr and a girlfriend of mine was riding Ladore, a thunderstorm came upon us – I won’t say “suddenly” because I am sure there were all the signs but we were just too young and ignorant to read them.  We were out pretty far on open space when the bolt of lightning hit next to us.  Ladore reared, but my friend hung on.  Burr “spooked” big time – it was like an entire lifetime of fear and emotion welled up in his legs and then exploded underneath us like a Christmas popper.  It was particularly concentrated in his back left leg, and when I finally got him to stop running, he could barely walk because of the hamstring he had pulled in that leg.  We trudged home in the pouring rain and constant lightning, I kept crying out and pleading to Burr as he kicked out his pained back leg each time he tried to step on it.  I cannot remember how I told my parents, I do not remember when I decision was made to send him to pasture.  I do know that I never saw him again.

When I found out all these years later that he was dying, I wanted to go with my dad to be with him when he put Burr down.  My dad cautioned me against doing so, asking me to remember Burr as the awesome athlete, teacher, explorer, and friend he had once been.  I did not have to decide, the weather decided for me, sending in a blizzard of the kind I had not seen since I was a young girl.  This was the day of the winter solstice.  We were marooned at the foot of the mountains for more than a week.  During a telephone conversation with my brother who is a horse veterinarian, I suggested that this blizzard, especially intense on the eastern prairie, might do dad’s job for him.  And it did, on Christmas Day.  So when I felt that Chinook, so uncanny and unexpected at first, it was perhaps Burrilto’s spirit finding his way home.

“In the Footsteps of ‘The Force’” – a preview

Please lend your support to this film, the first documentary to be made about FSSF veterans retracing their footsteps during the Italian Campaign of World War II.

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When I went to test this preview for premier at the Saturday night banquet of the 64th First Special Service Force (FSSF) Association Reunion, the projector and my computer had a major disagreement about video output. The sound was good, but the picture was either too blue or green, and no amount of technological corrective worked – this in a film symbolized by the red wild poppies of World War I and II. The preview was cut from footage I shot in Italy this past May and June, following six FSSF vets and their families back to the World War II battlegrounds. This was also the first edited work to be shown to the people who had been in Italy with me – the veterans, their families, and families of other vets – as well as to the rest of the FSSF families and current-day special forces soldiers and families gathered for the reunion in Helena, Montana.

And here it was, the afternoon of the banquet premier, and we couldn’t get the picture to go.

“We” were John Hart, Gianni Blaisi, and myself. John is from Medicine Hat, Alberta, and coordinated the North American component the 2010 May-June tour. His father, Sgt. Geoffrey Hart (1-2), was in The Force. Gianni was the local, Liri Valley coordinator in Italy for the tour, is a professor of literature and historian of The Force, and was in Helena to attend the reunion. Given our incredibly bonding time in Italy two months before, it was so wonderful to be in the same room with them again – even if we were vexed over the video projection. I offered that “at least” we could get the sound right, so the poor picture would just have to do. We weren’t happy with the conclusion but knew we could live with it. Beyond the color issues, I was already excited and nervous about showing this preview to the ones who matter the most in this whole film project – the disappearing veterans of World War II, and especially those of the First Special Service Force.

You’ll find out why when you watch this preview .

So come the banquet, I hooked up my computer to the projector and sound, and checked once to see if the picture came up – it did. I then went away to film, eat dinner and socialize until it was time to begin the presentation about the Italy tour with the preview. When the time arrived, John took the podium and we opened with a short video duet I had cut from a dedication ceremony on Hill 720: bagpipes from the the Liri Valley where the FSSF had fought; and a FSSF vet, Jack Furman, reading a poem, “My Buddy,” with Gianni translating. Then John delivered an awesome, heart-felt speech, which can be read here: John’s Helena speech.

After that, it was showtime. I opened the film preview and began playing it. When Ann Picken showed up in her bright red jacket clear-as-day after the “Flanders Fields” opening poem, I almost cried out in joy. I looked over at John and to Gianni to gage their reaction. Everyone looked riveted. The picture color was perfect, the sound just right – and the initial response encouraging and humbling from everyone at the banquet. (I was even awarded a Special Forces challenge coin, beware!)

For those associated with the First Special Service Force, we have a saying when things like this happen: The Power of ‘The Force’. Just when it seems like things might not work out… And then they do so in wonderfully unexpected ways: that’s “the power of The Force.” This saying expresses a belief, a longing we FSSF descendants hold: that “the Force” is still with us, looking out for us as our fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, and once-sons and soldiers…

My grandfather was 1st Lieutenant Charles R. Scoggin (5-3), killed in action at Mussolini Canal, February 2nd, 1944. He died along with two other lieutenants through the finality of a booby-trapped trench. His son (my dad) and I went to where it happened just inland from Anzio beachhead this past 2010 trip. I commemorated it with a few poignant scans and shots, some of which show up in this preview, and more of which will definitely show up in the film. My grandfather is my Guardian Angel, and part of the Power of The Force that makes this film possible.

Thank you very much for watching this preview . Feedback is appreciated. Forwarding is too.


P.S. If you want to receive news of when the DVD is released in August 2010, please email me at rimotamar(at)me.com.

How long to sing this song?

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,


Homage to Films about Tibet…


screening in Boulder on February 11th, 2010 at 4:30pm
@ The Church, 1421 Spruce St.
Boulder International Film Festival

(synopsis courtesy of film’s website: Tibet in Song

Tibet in Song is both a celebration of traditional Tibetan folk music and a harrowing journey into the past fifty years of cultural repression inside Chinese controlled Tibet. Director and former Tibetan political prisoner, Ngawang Choephel, weaves a story of beauty, pain, brutality and resilience, introducing Tibet to the world in a way never before seen on film.

The beauty of traditional Tibetan folk music is showcased through a variety of working songs, songs about family and the beauty of the land. These rarely seen performances are deftly juxtaposed against startling footage of the early days of the Chinese invasion and a concise explanation of the factors leading to the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile in 1959. Ngawang Choephel sets the stage for a unique exploration of the Chinese impact on Tibetans inside Tibet.

What follows is a heartbreaking tale of cultural exploitation and resistance, which includes Ngawangs’ own eventual imprisonment for recording the very songs at the center of the film. Tibet in Song provides raw and uncensored look at Tibet as it stands today, a country plagued by Chinese brutality, yet willing to fight for the existence of its unique cultural heritage.

Tibet in Song is directed by Ngawang Choephel, and contains both original music composed by Ngawang himself, and an array of traditional folk songs sung by native Tibetans.

Shining Spirit
A film made by a friend of mine, Karen McDiarmid, that demonstrates how the importance of music in Tibetan culture can reunite families across the divide of exile

Angry Monk
A film made a fellow anthropologist about the life, work, struggle and death of Gedun Choephel, the first Tibetan historian and anthropologist at the dawn of Chinese rule in Tibet

Leaving Fear Behind
A film made by Dhondup Wangchen in the aftermath of the 2008 uprisings in Tibet – he was arrested and sentenced to prison by Chinese authorities for making this film, and my film OUR SHADOWS COLLIDE is dedicated to him

Fire Under the Snow
A film about Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan political prisoner who smuggled out instruments of torture and memories of his imprisonment by Chinese authorities as empirical evidence of human rights abuses in China

Red Flag Over Tibet
The first film I ever watched about the historical events surrounding China’s takeover of Tibet as a study abroad student in Dharamsala, India (screening hosted by the Amnye Machen Institute)

The Sun Behind the Clouds
By the directors of “DREAMING LHASA”, a film made controversial at the 2010 Palm Springs Film Festival when Chinese filmmakers pulled out of the festival because this film – documenting the protests of Spring 2008 – was being screened as well

The Unwinking Gaze
A film originally made just to chronicle a day in the life of the Dalai Lama that became indispensable by following His Holiness the aftermath of the Spring 2008 protests…

When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun
I look forward to seeing this film when it is finished

Feature Films:

A searing film about the failed attempts of a band of self-appointed Tibetan game wardens to stop the poaching of Tibetan antelope, documented through the eyes of Tibetan-Chinese journalist

Secretly shot in Lhasa, this film is about a Tibetan family struggling under the Chinese occupation in various ways: assimilation, existentialism, activism – my film OUR SHADOWS COLLIDE owes much to the bravery of the filmmakers and actors in this classic film

Martin Scorsese’s take on the life and point of exile of the current 14th Dalai Lama

Dreaming Lhasa
The first feature film shot in Dharamsala, India – exile home of the Dalai Lama – touching upon the oft-overlooked, multicultural experience of exile for Tibetans

Himalaya (Caravan)
Beautiful film, beautiful soundtrack, capturing a cultural practice that is dissolving in the wake of globalization