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A BIG FILM FULFILLING A BIG PROMISE

By Ronault L.S. Catalani
The Asian Reporter, V17, #18 (May 1, 2007)

I had a dream last night," says Dhondup, a Tibetan on a mission. "A very vivid dream."

Dhondup, a former Lhasa monk and imprisoned Tibetan nationalist, is confiding in Ms. Karma (a Tibetan American filmmaker). In his dream, Dhondup’s recently perished mother urges him to go, "to go, and that everything would be all right." Dhondup does not want to leave Tibet, he doesn’t want to go to India, to Dharmsala, seat of the exiled government of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. "I didn’t want to go, but Ama-la said I must."

Dhondup must fulfill his solemn promise to deliver a sacred vessel to a shadowy freedom fighter named Loga. No address. No contacts. No clue.

But that’s not all.

In his prophetic dreaming, when Dhondup longingly looks back, instead of seeing his mother, where she stood there’s open-hearted Ms. Karma. "You were telling me to go," he says to a startled Karma. She was assuring him "that it would be all right."

Our man Dhondup, besides being deeply devout and politically cool, is ruggedly handsome. Naturally, Karma is beautiful. Zzzt zzzt. Electricity’s in the Himalayan highlands crisp azure air.

"Ooo, that guy’s fast," warns Karma’s best bud Jigme. Meaning: Those ex-monks are good. With the girls. Jigme’s jealous. "I’ll bet he thinks you’re a good passport to America." Very jealous.

Promises kept

Dreaming Lhasa promises a lot of things. Simple Old Tibet in our cynical times; the harrowing asymmetry of a tiny theocracy’s struggle between thundering giants; a sincere Eastern man and a troubled Westernized woman converging for a quest; indeed, half a dozen characters finding and rising toward their individual and collective dharma. Dreaming Lhasa is a murder mystery, and of course, a love story.

Veteran documentary filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam make it all work. Dreaming Lhasa, the directors’ first feature film, came out of a BBC project to research the story of CIA backing for Tibetan freedom fighters from the late 1950s to early ’60s.

The factual effort shifted into a condensed fictionalized account to capture the tale’s grand scale. Dreaming Lhasa is a big story. It’s tender and feels true to its tiniest emotional details. It is, without overstatement, in the words of 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (not a Tibetan bone in his Prussian torso): life enhancing.

Some credit for the film’s bigness must be attributed to British executive producer Jeremy Thomas (best known for his work in colossal films like The Last Emperor, The Lovers, The Sheltering Sky). And to Hollywood’s Richard Gere.

But the bulk of the credit for Dreaming Lhasa’s authenticity is likely due to Ms. Sarin and Mr. Sonam’s own considerable ethno-cultural credentials and their acclaimed skills as documentarians. This film’s realistic pacing, it’s slow and longing transitions, many of these lingering on Mother India’s achy dawns and dusks, lend irresistible emotional truth to the story.

And their choice of actors cinches it up tight.

Tenzin Jigme, who plays the jealous Jigme, the disaffected rocker no one (particularly love interest Karma) takes seriously, actually is a second-generation Dharamsala exile, and an aspiring modern musician. Jampa Kalsang, playing former monk Dhondup, was born and raised in Nepal’s exiled Tibetan community.

And here’s the best part: Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso (the Karma character) grew up in Warrenton, Oregon. She has since graduated from George Washington U, with a degree in International Business, and gone to work with Chevy Chase Bank in Washington D.C. A local girl done real good.

Moral anchors

Just kidding. Truly the best part, again consistent with the film’s solid anchor in somber reality, is the inclusion of four former politicized prisoners, Tibetan nuns and monks, real survivors of Chinese People’s Army tortured confessions and just plain sadism, portrayed in Dreaming Lhasa by themselves. Ani Ngawang Jampa (Gutsa Prison, 1989-91); Gyaltsen Pelsang (Gutsa Prison, 1993-95); Ani Tenzin Choedon (Gutsa Prison, 1988); Phuntsok Wangchuk (Drapai Prison, 1994-99). Ampun’allah. Lord have mercy on us all.

That’s a lot. This is one big movie. Grave but tender. And true. Compelling yet full of pause and mystery and interpretation. Generous.

The producers of Dreaming Lhasa invite viewers to their companion website at <www.dreaminglhasa.com> for fuller information on the political, cultural, and spiritual issues implicit in their effort. There also, visitors will find details on the directors and actors involved with the film.

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