Dreaming Lhasa looks at lives of Tibetans in India

By Tammy Stone
The Festival Daily, Toronto, September 12, 2005

Documentaries like the potent, controversial What Remains of Us (one of Canada's Top Ten of 2004) as well as activism on the part of celebrities like Richard Gere have helped create and maintain international awareness of the plight of Tibetans. Dreaming Lhasa, a moving meditative journey film, takes an innovative approach by going beyond the borders of Tibet to explore life outside the afflicted nation, depicting the communities of exiles in India from multiple perspectives.

Tibet is the heart and soul of Dreaming Lhasa though it remains visually absent. The film gets its name from a line spoken by Karma, a New Yorker of Tibetan origin visiting Dharamsala, India, to make a documentary about former prisoners of war in Tibet. Though she's never visited her homeland, she sometimes feels as though it is within and around her; she dreams of it without a real point of reference. It is in Dharamsala that her search for the meaning of home begins.

Dharamsala, the residence of the exiled Dalai Lama in northern India, is a border town nestled in the regal and lush Himalayan mountains. To conduct her interviews, Karma solicits the help of Jigme, an English-speaking Tibetan with a great lust for life, who revels in the company of Western visitors and comes to life when playing his guitar. He's an odd match and a wonderful complement to the somber and serious Karma, who is away from home at least partially to escape a failed relationship.

A new dynamic is born when, through Jigme, Karma meets the achingly soulful Dhondup, who spent four and a half years in a Tibetan prison for resisting the Chinese. His mother has recently died in Lhasa, and Dhondup wants Karma's help in tracking down a man named Loga so he can give him a charm box in accordance with his mother's wishes. Bemused and finally intrigued, Karma travels with Dhondup in search of this man and the mysterious story behind the charm box. Closure is impossible - everything is in limbo as long as exile is a fact of life - but the lessons of history can be learned, and new connections can let healing begin again.

Truth may often be stranger than fiction; good fiction, of course, can also be a powerful window into many kinds of truth. The beauty and lyricism of this film is transformative, evoking the splendour of nature and humanity in metaphysical, historical and culturally specific terms.