Alliance of Women Film Journalists
April 2007

reviewed by Jennifer Merin

In their first feature, “Dreaming Lhasa,“ 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.

The film is set in Dharamsala, the northern Indian city where the Dalai Lama (appearing briefly in the film as his limo passes a crowd of waiting worshippers) has established the Tibetan government in exile. Karma (Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso), a NY-filmmaker there to record stories of poltical refugees who’ve escaped China-occupied Tibet, becomes emotionally involved with one of her subjects, Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang), who’d promised his dying mother he’d deliver a precious charm box to a man named Loga (Phuntsok Namgyal Dhumkhang), a Tibetan monk and resistance fighter who’d disappeared years ago.

Both Ritu and Tenzing were born in northern India, both are US film school grads whose work has been supported by Richard Gere, an executive producer of “Dreaming Lhasa.”

While making a BBC-backed 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 “Dreaming Lhasa‘s” plot, with characters based on actual refugees. The cast is a composite of actors and non-actors, some of whom are prominent members of the Tibetan refugee community, and others of whom are former documentary interviewees who play themselves.

For Westerners, even those knowledgeable about the Tibetan diaspora, the film opens wide 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.

If, as products of a ’melting pot’ society built on the notion– real or unreal, right or wrong– of success through assimilation, we find it difficult to identify with the heartbreaking yearning exiled Tibetans feel for their homeland, individual stories told in “Dreaming Lhasa” compel us to compassion.

Dhondup’s quest to fulfill his mother’s last wish by delivering a treasure has familiar resonance– we’ve embraced similar missions in films as divergent as “Lord of the Rings” and “Children of Men.“ But, “Dreaming Lhasa‘s“ hero’s actions seem motivated by a need to fulfill traditional obligations, rather than prevent earthly doom. And his task is carried out without attendant sturm und drang – or, for that matter, much conflict or personal danger. When Dhondup hears Loga might be in Delhi, he and Karma go to Delhi. 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. This, too, sets “Dreaming Lhasa” apart as a mind-expanding experience.
Location-wise, the film’s a fascinating travelogue. Perhaps it’s their documentary background that makes Ritu and Tenzing expert in taking you into real environments– the streets of Dharamsala, shops of Delhi, mountain towns and temples– to further glimpse Tibetan culture in exile.

Noteworthy, too, is the fact that the Chinese government of Tibet has taken steps to repress “Dreaming Lhasa.”