The Oregonian
Friday, July 13, 2007
Special to The Oregonian

The plight of the Tibetan people has been the subject of numerous documentaries, benefit concerts and bumper stickers over the years, so it's not too cynical to wonder what "Dreaming Lhasa" brings to the table. What can be said, after all, about the efforts to re-establish the nation's independence after decades of brutal repression by China that hasn't already been said?

"Dreaming Lhasa" sidesteps this question: Rather than offer more information or documentation, the film uses a fictional framework to explore the human-scale effects of exile on those Tibetans who've escaped their homeland. Set (and filmed) mostly in Dharamsala, the Indian city where the Dalai Lama and his followers have taken up residence, the movie focuses on Karma (Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso), a Tibetan-American filmmaker who has come to Dharamsala to interview exiled Tibetan monks for a documentary.

At first this seems like an awkward quasi-fictional device, but once the story gains speed it's a useful device. Karma meets two Tibetans who seem to represent different poles of the response to exile. Her guide, Jigme (Tenzin Jigme), is Westernized -- even playing in a Tibetan rock band -- and somewhat jaded. One of her interviewees, a recent arrival from the Tibetan capital of Lhasa named Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang), is much more serene and fits the stereotype of a Buddhist monk. He has come bearing a charm box given to him by his mother on her deathbed and is charged with returning it to its owner, a man known only as Loga.

The quest for Loga takes these three from Dharamsala to Delhi and beyond, and allows for meetings with various former political prisoners, hunger strikers and Tibetan officials, many playing themselves. Karma also spends time on the phone dealing with a deteriorating relationship back in America, emphasizing her confused cultural identity but also padding the plotline.

"Dreaming Lhasa" is the first feature from documentary filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, and sometimes it shows. The performances can be wooden at times and the camerawork uncertain. But the underlying reality of both the places and the people involved comes through more strongly, perhaps, than it would in a more polished piece. In the end, the film communicates the passion and resilience of the Tibetans more eloquently than most documentaries could, and that's something we can't be reminded of enough.

(85 minutes, not rated, Living Room Theaters) Grade: B

Marc Mohan is a Portland freelance writer;