When exiled musician and scholar Ngawang Choephel returned to his native Tibet in 1995 to record and videotape indigenous folk songs, he was arrested by Chinese authorities, charged with spying and sent to prison, where he served seven years of an 18-year sentence.
This remarkable story alone would have provided ample fodder for a compelling documentary. But Choephel decided to keep his focus on a bigger picture and the result is Tibet in Song , a rich, fascinating if somewhat bumpy exploration of the history, sound, meaning and current state of traditional Tibetan folk music.
The film, which won a special jury prize for documentary at the Sundance festival earlier this year and is this month's Doc Soup screening, does use Choephel's personal journey as a navigation tool. His exile (his family fled the Chinese occupation of Tibet when he was two), musical education in Dharamsala, India, and in the United States, scholarly work in "song collecting" and then imprisonment take viewers through key points in the modern history and struggles of Tibetans.
While several of Choephel's videotapes were seized at the time of his arrest, some were smuggled out. These roughly photographed scenes beautifully illustrate the integral role music plays in the daily lives of Tibetans, who have songs for just about every activity.
But the ancient tunes and rhythms are being drowned out by the Chinese cultural juggernaut. Choephel is dismayed to discover patriotic Chinese songs blaring from loudspeakers in the streets, and market stalls that sell only Chinese pop recordings. Officially approved Tibetan performing groups leave local audiences with blank stares; Chinese authorities have exploited the power of music in Tibetan culture by changing lyrics of popular songs and supporting performers willing to sing them.
Choephel, who is scheduled to attend Doc Soup, makes a powerful case for culture as a form of resistance. In one heartbreaking scene he interviews three women who were imprisoned and tortured for refusing to sing the Chinese national anthem. They never gave in.
Recent documentaries such as the NFB's What Remains of Us (2004) and 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama (2006) give a glimpse of Tibetan culture, but their main focus is the spiritual and political work of the Dalai Lama. Tibet in Song presents a far more penetrating and well-rounded picture, not to mention voices that will resonate with viewers long after the credits roll.
Tibet in Song, part of Hot Docs' Doc Soup series, screens Dec. 16 at 6:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. at the Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor St. W.). Tickets $12 in advance from www.hotdocs.ca or same day at venue.
Special to The Globe and Mail