Imprisoned Without a Trial, Filmmaker Still Gets the Story in Tibet in Song


Raised as an exile in India, Tibetan ethnomusicologist and first-time filmmaker Ngawang Choephel returned to his homeland as an adult in 1995, video camera in hand, to document the rare pockets of Tibetan folk music that still existed under the oppressive Chinese regime. Deemed by communist values as a poison to be eradicated (not unlike religion or aristocracy), Tibet’s traditional folk culture has long been subverted under the guise of modernization, as centuries-old music about beauty and everyday labor were rewritten as ubiquitous pop tunes extolling Chairman Mao’s warm radiance. Choephel’s celebratory record of disappearing voices alone would have made for a focused, sympathetic angle on the Tibetan people’s ongoing struggle, but then the director was arrested as a spy for “collecting sensitive material” and imprisoned, without a trial, for the first third of an 18-year sentence. Safe on the outside, he bravely kept filming, adding stock footage and new testimonies from fellow political prisoners, his project now working overtime as a riveting sermon on patriotism and a history lesson on tyrannical brainwashing. But make no mistake about his ability to make social studies entertaining: A montage about Tibet’s many supporters is set to the Beastie Boys playing “Sabotage” live.