Dreaming Lhasa

A still from Dreaming Lhasa.

The first major feature film by a Tibetan to deal with contemporary Tibet, Dreaming Lhasa, opens in the US tomorrow (April 13) despite Chinese pressure behind the scenes to discourage film festivals from showing it. The film’s premiere at the Imaginasian Theater in New York coincides with the opening at the Lincoln Center on the same day of a Chinese government-endorsed film from within Tibet, The Silent Holy Stones.

The Chinese authorities have been trying to prevent Dreaming Lhasa being shown in major film festivals worldwide – in at least one case by saying that they would withdraw a major Chinese film from the festival if it was shown.

Dreaming Lhasa, which will also show in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and other US cities, is the first internationally recognized feature film by a Tibetan, in partnership with his Indian wife, to explore the contemporary reality of Tibet and the plight of exiles.

Mary Beth Markey, Vice President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “Beijing continues in its attempts to control the representation of Tibet to the international community, including putting pressure on film festivals not to show this powerful new film about the Tibetan struggle for freedom. The Chinese authorities are now promoting certain films in order to show their tolerance and encouragement of Tibetan artists and Tibetan culture. Unfortunately the Silent Holy Stones, although independently made by a well regarded Tibetan film-maker within Tibet, is being used by the PRC as a propaganda opportunity.”

Dreaming Lhasa, a film of political struggle and family reconciliation set among the exile Tibetan community in India, opens in New York on April 13 and can be seen in seven cities across the US this spring.

It is made by husband and wife team Ritu Sarin, from India, and Tibetan exile Tenzing Sonam, the major world documentary filmmakers on Tibet, whose work includes Shadow Circus (PBS), The Reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche (BBC), and The Trials of Telo Rinpoche (BBC). Executive producer is actor and activist Richard Gere, chair of ICT’s board.

The Chinese authorities have been trying to prevent Dreaming Lhasa being shown in major film festivals worldwide. Chinese officials pressured the Toronto International Film Festival to remove the film from its program in 2005, the world premiere, but the festival refused. The film was also accepted by the Pusan International Film Festival in Korea to screen later that year when it was unexpectedly ‘de-selected’ at the last moment, with no explanation. Pusan was the launching pad for the Chinese Tibetan film – The Silent Holy Stones – which was officially promoted by Chinese authorities as being the ‘first Tibetan feature film’. Informed sources say that one of the conditions for being allowed to screen The Silent Holy Stones is that no Tibetan films made outside China can be screened with it. Dreaming Lhasa is the most prominent film to come out of the Tibetan diaspora and is certainly one of the main targets of this Chinese campaign to discourage screenings of films made by exile Tibetan filmmakers.

Film-maker Ritu Sarin said: “We wanted to involve Tibetans in telling their stories through the perspective of exiles who have lost their country.Although the protagonists’ story is fictional, it is an authentic rendering of the passions and concerns of Tibetan exiles, and the political prisoners who appear in the film tell their own, true stories. For these reasons, Dreaming Lhasa is a film that China does not want you to see.”

Dreaming Lhasa

Ritu Sarin, from New Delhi, and Tenzing Sonam, who was born in northeastern India of Tibetan refugee parents, have been making documentaries on Tibetan subjects for many years but their longtime desire was to make a feature film that would tackle comprehensively the issues closest to their hearts – the political and cultural reality of Tibet under Chinese occupation, the in-between world of the younger generation of refugees who have never seen their homeland, and the gradual dying out of the older generation whose memories of a free Tibet are the only living link to the past.

The central characters of Dreaming Lhasa, Karma (the New York filmmaker) and Jigme (the lost rock musician in India), stem directly from Tenzing Sonam’s own experiences as a first-generation Tibetan exile who was born and brought up in India and then lived most of his adult life in the West before returning to Dharamsala. The character of Dhondup, the recent refugee from Tibet, grew out of a series of interviews that Ritu and Tenzing conducted in 1999 with former political prisoners from Tibet. These interviews had such a profound impact on the filmmakers that some of the interviewees actually appear as themselves in the film, giving their real-life testimonies to Karma.