Tibet in Song -- Film Review

Doc effectively wraps politics and traditional music up in first-person story.

NEW YORK -- Weaving a long-running political saga and musicological exploration together with a compelling personal narrative, "Tibet in Song" holds appeal for many contingents that, though perhaps small, are avid about the subjects under discussion. Surprisingly effective at covering ground in under 90 minutes, the doc will please its specialty audience and should soon be a go-to DVD for the Tibet-curious.

Filmmaker Ngawang Choephel was born in Tibet before his family fled to India when he was two, and has spent his life fascinated by his homeland's music. Ignoring warnings that he would be arrested, he crossed the border in 1995 with notebooks and a video camera, intent on documenting what traditional music was left there. His quest did indeed get him thrown in jail, and only after a worldwide outcry (led by his tenacious mother) was he released, having served 7 years alongside political prisoners whose stories of persecution will shock many viewers.

Choephel is less interested in his own travails than in recounting what he found before his arrest. After quickly explaining China's 1950s invasion, he shows the sad extent to which folk music was quashed by Communist officials who saw it as a threat. When Choephel first arrives in Lhasa, he (and we) are startled to find the air filled with garish Chinese pop and propaganda anthems. Even the "traditional" concerts staged by touring groups are crude bastardizations that locals don't even recognize as being related to their heritage.

It's a dispiriting scene, but one countered when Choephel makes it out to the countryside. There, he finds a village where folk traditions still thrive and every daily ritual has its own musical accompaniment — one song for milking cows, another for churning butter, each known by the person who does that chore.

Ethnomusicologists will wish the film presented some of these songs uncut, but the movie saves its longest performance scenes for later, when it lets Tibetan exiles voice their protests in song. The effect is to rouse viewers' support, both proving that traditions still exist to be saved and underlining the threat they are facing.

Opened: Friday, September 24 (Film First)
Production company: Guge Productions
Director: Ngawang Choephel
Screenwriters: Ngawang Choephel, Tara Steele
Producer: Ngawang Choephel
Executive producer: Anne Corcos
Director of photography: Hugh Walsh
Music: Ngawang Choephel
Editor: Tim Bartlett
No rating, 86 minutes