In 1995, Ngawang Choephel returned to his native Tibet to document the country’s fast-disappearing folk-singing tradition. Instead, he was accused of being a spy and sentenced to 18 years in prison by the Chinese, inspiring international demand for his release. Despite the personal hardship he suffered, Choephel puts the local musicians and their endangered traditions first. But the helmer’s own experience strongly amplifies “Tibet in Song’s” political subtext, revealing a form of cultural Darwinism in which Chinese control threatens to extinguish centuries of cultural heritage. The cause should make this a popular choice with the PBS set.
Working with the Sundance Institute, Choephel crafts a multimedia essay that, while not always intuitive in structure, begins with a celebration of music’s place in Tibetan culture. Seven of Choephel’s tapes were confiscated at the time of his arrest, but nine were smuggled out — from this low-grade footage, he draws a rare first-hand glimpse into customs far outside the country’s metropolitan centers.
Music is more than a pastime for these rural Tibetans; it’s an integral part of life, setting the rhythm and spirit of every conceivable activity from churning butter to drinking with friends. Via interviews with local poets and teachers, the pic reveals how the occupying Chinese recognized the power of music to Tibetans and have co-opted the lyrics of popular songs for propagandistic ends: “Tibetans and Chinese are one mother’s daughter, and the name of that mother is the Republic of China,” sings one popular star presented as a Leni Riefenstahl-like sellout.
Through the assimilation of external style, the native music is rendered “meaningless” in Choephel’s view (by contrast, he celebrates those Tibetan musicians who have found ways to integrate patriotic or revolutionary ideals within the confines of otherwise unexceptional pop and punk tunes). Without weapons, Choephel reasons, the native Tibetans have only their cultural identity to resist the Chinese, and that tradition is a fragile thing, passed along through the generations, not recorded and distributed the way modern music is.
Here, the film turns tragic, honoring those who were punished for resisting China’s Cultural Revolution. Choephel himself falls into this category, as do three women tortured and jailed for refusing to sing the Chinese national anthem. To reinforce their cause, the film recycles familiar scenes of Tibetan oppression, proving far stronger as cultural survey than as agitprop.
Choephel, who narrates the film in English, is ultimately more musicologist than filmmaker, and yet the docu’s very existence is something of a miracle. Such a touchy subject will surely spark passionate responses from audiences, who will likely forgive the more uneven aspects of its presentation.