An identity crisis for exiled Tibetans

By Jennifer Merin
New York Press, April 18, 2007

Dreaming Lhasa
Directed by Ritu Sarin & Tenzing Sonam

Documentary filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam draw upon their personal experiences, observations and imaginings to create a compelling and complex tale of Tibetans in exile with their first feature film, Dreaming Lhasa. Karma (Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso), a NY filmmaker, is in Dharamsala, the northern Indian city where the Dalai Lama has established the Tibetan government in exile. She’s there to record stories of political refugees who’ve escaped China-occupied Tibet and becomes emotionally involved with one of her subjects, Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang), who promised his dying mother he’d deliver a precious charm box to a Tibetan monk and resistance fighter who disappeared years ago.

Both Ritu and Tenzing were born in northern India and are both U.S. film school grads whose work has been supported by Richard Gere, an executive producer of Dreaming Lhasa. While making a BBC-funded doc about the CIA’s backing of the Tibetan resistance, Ritu and Tenzing heard of a CIA-trained Tibetan fighter who’d vanished. Musings about what happened to him lead to the film’s plot, with characters based on actual refugees.

For Westerners, even those knowledgeable about the Tibetan diaspora, the film opens a window into another culture and its values, and of the cultural identity crisis befalling a young generation of Tibetans who’ve never seen their ancestral homeland and, as dying elders take traditional ways and memories with them, are increasingly removed from the reality of a free Tibet.

Dhondup’s quest to fulfill his mother’s last wish by delivering a treasure has familiar resonance, but his task is carried out without the attendant sturm und drang—or, for that matter, much conflict or personal danger. When Dhondup hears Loga might be in Delhi, he and Karma travel there. When they’re told Loga’s a hermit in the hills, they head for the hills. Still, the story commands attention because of the characters’ inner tensions.

The film is also a fascinating travelogue. Perhaps it’s due to their documentary background, but Ritu and Tenzing are experts at revealing the streets of Dharamsala, the shops of Delhi, mountain towns and temples to capture a further glimpse of Tibetan culture in exile.