Under Review: ‘Tibet in Song’


“They will arrest you as easily as taking a hair from butter.”

Our director, Ngawang Choephel, is thinking there should be no problems. After all, it is 1995 and he is just going to be taking footage of Tibetans singing folk songs.

One thing the viewer will quickly learn is that folk music in Tibet is a big deal. It is the purveyor of cultural and spiritual values. It transmits information, history and traditions. It unifies a diverse people and affects their attitude.

However, the Chinese, masters of musical manipulation, play their own music, celebrating Chinese nationalism and communism on loudspeakers throughout the towns of Tibet. Choephel notes that they use it to purposefully and gradually change the hearts and minds of their subjugated population. He wonders how much it affects the Tibetan cultural identity.

Whether they were milking, churning butter, roofing, herding or drinking, the Tibetans traditionally chronicled their life and culture with a song. Music was a part of everyday life for centuries. One Tibetan interviewed in the film said that through singing all day long they lived a happy life.

In 1995, Ngawang Choephel, the writer/director/producer of this film, was determined to return to Tibet, the home he had fled as a two-year old with his mother. Since the 1950 invasion of China, Tibet and its people have been scrambling for an identity and sense of national pride. With the Cultural Revolution, Choephel had been part of a second exodus from fear and displacement.

One of the main ideas of this film is that folk music is the center of Tibetan life. If it is replaced by Chinese music, laden with political rhetoric, Choephel sees his Tibetan culture irreparably lost.

So it is that he sets out “determined to find Tibetan folk music” and the effect Chinese occupation has had on it. In his journey to find the basis and foundation of his culture he is also on a parallel challenge to find his father who remained in Tibet when his family left.

How much of any of this, Tibetan folk music, his family and his culture, will Choephel find intact? How will he react to what he encounters? How has Communist China affected his life, his history, his culture and his family?

“Tibet in Song” presents Tibetan folk songs as the unifier of Tibetan life. Even though its inhabitants are spread out into an area the size of western Europe and into approximately 140 different cities, music has served as a unifier, teacher and spiritual voice. With very little outside influence, Tibetan folk music had been, as described in the film, “the innate manifestation of Tibetan culture.”

Choephel documents his encounters with folk singers and records their local songs. After two months he is ready to hire a driver to take him on a several hour journey to meet his father. After two hours in the car they reach a checkpoint. With his photography equipment, Choephel is mistaken for a spy by the rural police. Over the next 6 ½ years he remains incarcerated and interrogated in 3 different prisons.

There is a shift in the film at this point of political complication. Ex-prisoners, women now released, explain the similar circumstances of their detainment.

It’s ironic that it is in prison, where Choephel is daily interrogated for collecting footage of folk singing, that he encounters more folk songs than he could have imagined. He copies the words, memorizes them and even begins writing his own.

“Tibet in Song” has won ten film festival awards since it won the Special Jury Prize for a documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. Perhaps most significantly is that it not only won the 2010 Audience Award from the Movies that Matter Festival in the Hague but several other awards at Human Rights Festivals around the world.

“Tibet in Song” is currently being screened at opposite ends of the United States. It is being held over for a second week at Cinema Village Theater in New York City, Sept. 24 to Oct. 7. On the other side of the U.S., it is being shown on Oct. 6 at the Northwest Film Center as part of Voices in Action: Human Rights on Film (Sept. 30 to Nov. 4).


U.S. Screenings:
Voices in Action: Human Rights on Film:


Written, Directed and Produced by Nagawang Choephel
Co-write: Tara Steele
Executive Producer: Anne Corcos
Runtime: 86 minutes

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1 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Pedro #

    Sounds like a quality film.

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