“Tibet in Song” Review – 2009 Asian American International Film Festival

For many ethnomusicologists and human rights activists, Ngawang Choephel has been a household name for more than a decade. In 1995, the Tibetan exile – who graduated from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India, and came to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar at Middlebury College – returned to Tibet to make a film about the folk music of his homeland. Two months into the trip, he was stopped at a police check point, arrested on suspicion of espionage, and sentenced without trial to 18 years in prison. An international human rights campaign helped to secure his release in 2002.

Given this background, it is no surprise that Choephel’s long-awaited film, “Tibet in Song,” did not come out the way he originally intended. Since he sent half of his field recordings to India prior to his arrest, Choephel was still able to make a documentary about the state of Tibetan folk music in present-day Tibet. At the same time, “Tibet in Song” narrates Choephel’s own journey from folk musician and researcher to political prisoner.

The autobiographical story is the more compelling of the two tales. Here, Choephel concentrated not so much on his considerable suffering during his imprisonment, but on his pride in becoming an active participant in the Tibetan resistance and his growing admiration for those who sacrificed much in their fight for independence. A particularly gripping scene involves his interview with three women who were sent to prison for protesting. During their incarceration, they were tortured for refusing to sing the Chinese National Anthem during the flag-raising ceremony each morning. This clearly demonstrated that music, often seen as a purely positive force in American society, can just as easily divide people and serve as a weapon.

The documentary’s material on Tibetan folk music includes valuable (and extremely hard-to-get) footage. It also makes several convincing arguments; Choephel’s overall point that Chinese government policies have led to a rapid decline in Tibetan folk culture is impossible to dispute. He also persuasively shows how folk music has traditionally been used to educate young Tibetans on the culture’s worldview and customs.

Ultimately, however, Choephel’s overemphasis on the effects of Chinese government policies, while perfectly understandable given his background, makes his assessment of the decline of Tibetan folk music a little too simplistic. After all, folk cultures are going extinct all over the world, and the reasons are many: urbanization, changes in religious philosophy, economic development, globalization, tourism, technological innovation, fusion and so on. To be fair, Choephel does mention some of these factors in the film; one only wishes that he had explored them in greater depth. A particularly underdeveloped subject is the relationship between the Tibetan folk music and its Buddhist culture.

Despite my reservations, “Tibet in Song” is a valuable film that not only gives viewers a peek into a musical tradition that is not well-known in the United States, but can also spark important conversations on a wide variety of political and cultural topics.

“Tibet in Song” was shown at the 2009 Asian American International Film Festival. The film’s director, Ngawang Choephel, won the festival’s “Best Emerging Director in Documentary Feature” Award.