Back in 2009, I was privileged to see an advance screening of the film ‘Tibet in Song’ by Ngawang Choephel in NYC and was absolutely mesmerized by Tibet’s breathtaking views, its people’s courage and beauty and its filmmaker’s strength and resilience in the face of adversity. I know that after watching ‘Tibet in Song’ I would try to never again complain about a rainy day I have to spend inside and I would respect my Tibetan brothers and sisters only that much more! I mean, the fashions and jewelry alone have made me a fan of Tibet but their courage made me a lifetime supporter. Back then, I caught up with Choephel and he shared some of his insight into this very personal journey of a film.
On July 31st, the film comes back to its first home, the Rubin Museum in NYC — where I first watched it! — to celebrate its tenth anniversary. It is a work of art that cannot be missed! Click on the link for more info.
What made you go back to Tibet? And what happened while you were there?
Ngawang Choephel: While growing up in India as a Tibetan refugee there was always this feeling that we would one day go back to Tibet. But years went by, Tibet alive only in our imagination and Tibetans in India kept demonstrating against China’s invasion of our country. It seemed more and more unlikely that all the Tibetans in India would go back to Tibet soon. Of course I wanted to feel that sense of belonging in a place that you can call your own, but most importantly it was Tibetan music and culture that drove me to go back to there. I had so many questions, curiosity, excitement and emotions that I simply couldn’t wait any longer to see Tibet. When I arrived there, the first impression I got came from the warmth of the people, the intensity of our culture and raw beauty of our landscape. I never thought in my life that I would be one of the first Tibetans from outside Tibet to film Tibetan music. I was proud of myself to be on that mission and it was a prime time in my life to have most of the Tibetans I met share their music and their stories with me. They went through so much yet they shared their music with me in a most intimate way. I never thought my life would be so valuable to experience this journey and moment with them in Tibet. I found joy, as they do, in everything they did and the way they live.
During your visit there, you were then arrested and most of your work was confiscated. How did you manage to keep all the footage that you have in your film?
Choephel: Yes, after two months of traveling and recording music I was arrested. After one year of interrogation I was sentenced to 18 years in prison, accused of spying. They confiscated 7 tapes, but I was able to send 9 tapes to India through a friend of mine, before I was arrested.
Were there ever moments of doubt in your mind during your incarceration. Thoughts of “Why did I do this, why did I come here?”
Choephel: There were a few times I was thinking “If I had not done this or done that” but I never questioned that coming to Tibet was the wrong idea. I don’t remember ever feeling like that. Most of the time I was thinking and contemplating how my work could be a crime or why was I being held in prison and eventually I could feel the same pain and injustice of humanity for what all my fellow Tibetan political prisoners went through. I was in a way proud to be one among many who have sacrificed their lives and who were in prison at that time. I would forget to worry about myself most of the time and my main worry was for my mom and uncle. But then again as one of my closest friend, a late political prisoner said “What you are talking about? The only difference is you are inside and she is outside. That’s it”.
How were you finally freed?
Choephel: I was finally released in January of 2002, after my mother’s relentlessly solitary campaign, with the help 0f the US government, many international artist, the Tibetan government in exile and many other organizations that fought hard for my release.
You grew up in India, but then what made you move the US after you were finally freed from jail in Tibet?
Choephel: I was released to India via the USA in 2002. Since there is a strong philanthropic sense and interest in independent work in the US, I decided to resume my work here, continuing where I left off before my incarceration. I didn’t know it would take this long, but the entire process of making this film and meeting hundreds people in the business, sharing my story and getting their help was a journey that I believe would not have happened anywhere else except here in the USA.
What is the most important lesson you learned while making this film?
Choephel: I have learned so many things from making the film but the most important lesson was how important it is to collaborate with others. You can make films by yourself but working with others who really believe in the subject makes a film complete.
What do you think will be your next project, after this film it will have a tough act to follow…
Choephel: I am a very passionate person and my life is dedicated to what I can best do for the Tibetan cause and our story. I will most likely work on another Tibet related documentary.
Before you started filming in Tibet, before you were captured, what had you hoped to accomplish with your work? Did you know you would eventually make a film out of it?
Choephel: My mission was to go to Tibet to find the right location and people for our next crew which I was planning to bring during my next trip. I was collecting info and doing some short field research while filming in Tibet, but my main goal was to do pre-production work. I had already conceived the idea of making the film and I had made a presentation cut - to raise funds etc. - before I went to Tibet.
And finally, if you had to describe your Tibet to a person who knows nothing about your country, how would you do that?
Choephel: I would say that Tibet is highest country in world, a beautiful land with beautiful people. It has its own unique civilization, history and culture, but since the Chinese invasion in 1949, Tibetans have been victims of the longest cultural genocide, with the highest number of imprisonments, torture and deaths in this world. It’s like its climate is controlled by China’s totalitarian regime: Sometimes it’s sunny, sometimes it rains, but most of the time it’s dark and cloudy in Tibet.