Even if you’ve read a lot of news stories about Tibet, even if you’ve seen other documentaries about that occupied land, “Tibet in Song” qualifies as a must-see. This film takes a very personal look at an outrage.
The film is directed and narrated by Ngawang Choephel, an ethnomusicologist whose own story provides a through-line.
Born in Tibet but raised in India, he spent six years in jail when he returned to his homeland in the mid-1990s. But that’s not the only story of the film.
Choephel gives a quick background of how China has asserted authority over Tibet since 1950, including the expulsion of the Dalai Lama in 1959. The film is most interested in the way the Chinese have systematically replaced traditional Tibetan culture with Chinese influences, especially music, which is Choephel’s passion.
He traveled to Tibet in 1995 to videotape traditional music, which, according to the film, exists in defiance of the cheesy Chinese pop music that dominates popular media there. Before he was arrested, Choephel managed to get a lot of this footage out of the country and we see it in “Tibet in Song.”
Then he got arrested, charged with espionage. He was kept in abusive conditions, which led his determined mother to go on a hunger strike, which in turn inspired a gallery of famous musicians to lobby for his release.
For someone who was held in captivity under beastly conditions, Choephel maintains a clear, steady hold on his argument. He gives some fascinating examples of how some popular Tibetan singers adopted the new Chinese modes and how children absorb these new songs of praise to the great communist motherland.
And he shows how this connects, logically and horribly, with the way Tibetan political prisoners who refused to sing the Chinese national anthem were tortured, sometimes to the point of death.
It almost seems frivolous to note that the Tibetan music in the film is marvelous. But that’s fundamental to the movie’s meaning: to preserve these songs in the face of opposition.
There are a lot of good documentaries being released right now, in order to attract attention from awards-givers. But “Tibet in Song” truly is a standout, even in that admirable field.
Director and former Tibetan political prisoner Ngawang Choephel will answer questions after the 7:10 p.m. showing of “Tibet in Song” tonight and after the 5 p.m. showing Saturday at the Varsity theater, 4329 University Way NE, Seattle.