Songs from and for a lost homeland

Yesterday’s Hirschfield film, Tibet in Song, was amazing. Unfortunately, both screenings happened yesterday and DVDs aren’t on sale yet, but the movie still deserves mention here.

The film is a product of the efforts of Ngawang Choephel, a Tibetan artist and musicologist who fled to India as a young boy, to collect and document Tibetan folk songs in his homeland.  In the course of making the documentary, Choephel was arrested by Chinese authorities and sentenced (without trial) to eighteen years in prison. The only recordings that survived were tapes he had sent to India.  After an international effort led by his mother and helped along by many groups and politicians around the world (including Middlebury, Jim Bunning and Patrick Leahy), Choephel was released after six years.  Recently, he finished compiling the still considerable footage he had into Tibet in Song.

Choephel weaves together his individual journey with sharp observations of Tibetan cultural resilience and co-optation through music — and then there are the songs: stark, often haunting and sometimes joyful.  Choephel studied at Middlebury under a Fullbright scholarship in the ’90s (in what was then the Theater/Dance/Video Department) and received an honorary doctorate in ’02.  He was at the screening yesterday to take questions. A lot of people asked about heavy political stuff — Choephel was enthusiastic about the recent Nobel Prize mentioned in George’s post the other day — but the film’s greatest strength is that it can simultaneously stand inside and outside of contentious political debates. It’s about music, but it seems that for Tibetan culture, music is about everything.

If you’re not convinced by the trailer, please note that Tibet in Song has been getting press (1, 2) and winning prizes all over the place.