Production Notes

Notes on the Film

White Crane Films Office Dreaming Lhasa is the first dramatic feature film by documentary filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. It is also the first internationally recognized feature film by a Tibetan to explore the contemporary reality of Tibet. Although the film is set among the exile community in India the story it tells has resonances beyond just the Tibetan experience; it touches upon the larger questions of cultural identity, dislocation and loss that are very much a part of today’s post-modern world.

Ritu and Tenzing have been making documentaries on Tibetan subjects for many years but their longtime desire was to make a feature film that would tackle comprehensively the issues closest to their heart – the political and cultural reality of Tibet under Chinese occupation, the in-between world of the younger generation of refugees who have never seen their homeland, and the gradual dying out of the older generation whose memories of a free Tibet are the only living link to the past.

More than 45 years have passed since the Chinese invasion of Tibet forced the Dalai Lama and close to a hundred thousand Tibetans to flee their homeland. Two generations of Tibetans have grown up, either under Chinese rule or in exile. Today, China rules Tibet with an iron hand and all forms of dissent are ruthlessly quashed. The goal of regaining a free Tibet – the raison d’etre of the refugee community – seems further away than ever before. Where does this leave the Tibetans? Inside Tibet, Tibetans have no voice, no way of expressing themselves freely. In exile, the Tibetan community is relatively tiny and it is only recently that a small band of filmmakers has begun to take the first hesitant steps towards looking at its own situation. In this context, Ritu and Tenzing’s first feature film is of particular significance as it captures some of the complexities and contradictions of being Tibetan at this crucial juncture in Tibet’s history, and opens up these issues for reflection, both among Tibetans and for a larger audience.

Tenzing with the actors The germ of the idea for the story came from a true-life incident: Tenzing’s father, Lhamo Tsering, had been an important figure in the resistance movement against the Chinese and had served as the key liaison between the guerilla forces and the CIA, which helped to train, arm and fund them from the late fifties to the end of the sixties. Tibet’s armed struggle finally came to a close in 1974 and Tenzing’s father spent nearly seven years in prison in Kathmandu as a result. In 1998, Ritu and Tenzing were commissioned by the BBC to make a documentary on this little-known piece of history, and while researching the film, heard the story of how one of the CIA-trained fighters – someone Tenzing had known as a child – had simply vanished without a trace some years after the end of the movement. What could have happened to him? Musings on his mysterious fate led to the framework on which the story of Dreaming Lhasa slowly evolved.

The central characters of Karma (the New York filmmaker) and Jigme (the lost rock musician in India), with their confused cultural identities, their efforts to find some meaningful connection with a homeland they have never seen, their desire to keep alive a political struggle that seems all but lost, stem directly from Tenzing’s own experiences as a first-generation Tibetan exile who was born and brought up in India and then lived most of his adult life in the West before returning to Dharamsala.

The background to the character of Dhondup, the recent refugee from Tibet, grew out of a series of interviews that Ritu and Tenzing conducted in 1999 while making a short film, in which former political prisoners from Tibet – nuns, monks, ordinary men and women – described in graphic detail their ordeal while in Chinese custody for the simple offence of having demonstrated for Tibet’s independence. These interviews had a profound impact on the filmmakers, so much so that some of the interviewees actually appear as themselves in the film, giving their real-life testimonies to Karma.

The older characters of Loga, Tse Topgyal and Ghen Rabga are drawn from the many former resistance fighters that Ritu and Tenzing interviewed while making their film on the CIA’s involvement in Tibet. As the Tibetan struggle increasingly takes on a non-violent character, references to Tibet’s armed struggle are gradually sidelined and the sacrifices made by these men are in danger of being forgotten, even by Tibetans themselves. Ritu and Tenzing were keen to pay tribute to these older Tibetans and their story is a key element in the film, forming as it does, the arc that leads from the past to the future.