Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 12, 2019

The Sweet Requiem

Filed under: Film,Tibet — louisproyect @ 9:24 pm

Opening today at the IFC Center in New York is “The Sweet Requiem”, a narrative film co-directed by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, who are Tibetan husband and wife living in the USA. Sonam wrote a screenplay that can be described as a cri de coeur of the Tibetan exile community. According to the press notes, the film was inspired by an incident in September 2006 on the 3.6 mile high Nangpa-La Pass between Tibet-Nepal border when Chinese border guards opened fire on a group of fleeing Tibetans, leaving dead a 17-year-old nun.

For Sonam and Sarin, it raised a number of questions: Who were these escapees and what was their journey like? Why, after nearly 50 years of Chinese occupation, were Tibetans still risking their lives to escape to India? And why were so many of them children?

This incident was dramatized as the story of Dolkar, who was part of a small group of Tibetans we see in the opening scenes of the film trudging through deep snow in the Himalayas. Out of nowhere, we hear a rifle shot and the man at the head of the group falling down, mortally wounded.

Among the survivors is Dolkar, who has lost her father during the same assault. She was a young child making the journey but now lives in New Delhi as a 26-year old enjoying urban life. She takes lessons in Bollywood dance techniques, hangs out with fellow exiles, and makes a modest living working in a threading salon. Notwithstanding her normal existence, she is constantly reminded of what she left behind. Recent videos of self-immolations in Tibet jar her into the feelings of loss and sadness that many Tibetan exiles feel, including the nanny who lives down the hall from me in my high-rise. The press notes reveal a staggering number of suicides by self-immolation, numbering 153 since 2009. By comparison, this would amount to 15,000 if Tibet had the same population as the USA.

The film is divided into Dolkar’s current life in New Delhi with frequent flashbacks to the trek across the Himalayas. Past and present are conjoined when Gompo, the leader of the band, shows up in New Delhi and is welcomed into the exile community as an activist. Only Dolkar recognizes him as the guide who abandoned the group years ago, thus leaving the others to their own devices. If he is tarnished by this selfish act, he is compromised even further when Dolkar discovers that he has been meeting with Tibetans working as Chinese spies on the exile community. Gompo has been an agent himself but hoped to make a clean break with his colonizers after becoming an exile. He learns that making personal choices in harmony with his political and religious beliefs does not come easy, especially when you belong to an oppressed nation of just over 3 million souls fighting for independence against an oppressor nation of 1.3 billion.

The film went to extraordinary lengths to recreate the trek that Dolkar and her fellow Tibetans took across the snow-covered mountains. Shot in the Indian Himalayan region of Ladakh at altitudes of over 15,000 feet (4500 meters) in sub-zero temperatures, two crew-members developed altitude sickness and were unable to continue.

Twelve years ago I reviewed a film called “The Angry Monk” that is a portrait of Gendun Choephel (1903-1951), a legendary figure in Tibet, who was opposed to both the religious elite and to forced Chinese assimilation. The documentary is an excellent introduction to Tibetan culture and politics that I recommend highly and that fortunately can be seen here: https://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/angry_monk “The Angry Monk” interviews a number of Tibet’s leading anti-colonial intellectuals like Jamyang Norbu who provided insights into the character of one of the most determined struggles of the past half-century. No matter the obsession of some in the West about Tibetan spirituality, the main dynamic is one of self-determination, a right that socialists supported in Lenin’s day and that is often forgotten when the topic of Tibet comes up on the left. Here is Norbu on what Tibetans are fighting for:

Q: How does the West see Tibet?

A: I think, primarily the West sees Tibet, to some extent, as a fantasy land, as a Shangri La. Of course, this is a kind of stereotype that has existed in the Western kind of perception for a very long time, even before the movie “Lost Horizon,” the movie was made. Initially, the perception came from ideas of medieval Europe that they had of … … (inaudible), the Christian king who lived behind the mountains of Gog and Magog, and who would come maybe to make the whole of Asia a Christian country.

Because maybe people in medieval times heard of Tibet and a lot of liturgical practices in Tibet, religious rites and ceremonies, resembled the Roman Catholic ones.

Q: Tibet is suddenly very chic in America. Why is that?

A: There’s a kind of New Age perception of Tibet, which is fed to some extent quite deliberately by propagandists for Tibet, many New Age type Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhists. And, also subscribed gradually by Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama and a lot of prominent Lamas. The idea that this even materialist west will be saved by the spiritualism of the Tibetan Buddhists. It’s total nonsense.

Tibetans are in no position to save anyone, least of all themselves in the first place.

But, this is the kind of idea that’s being subscribed by a lot of New Age type people. This is the problem that Tibetans face, because their issues and the tragedy of Tibet has not being taken seriously. Primarily, it’s very fuzzy; it’s sort of a feel good issue, rather than a stark, ugly reality.

You have the Palestinian problem. Now, whether you like the Palestinians–and I’m sure a lot people in the West don’t like them—- but you give them the respect that their condition is real.

A lot of people love Tibetans in the West, tremendous sympathy, but it’s a very fuzzy kind of sympathy, because it never touches on the reality. It doesn’t touch on the reality that the Tibetan people are disappearing, they’re being wiped out.

You look at even supportive friends of Tibet like Galen …. Have you seen his calendars? It just says everything is wonderful. Tibet is wonderful. The culture is wonderful. The land is wonderful. It does not touch on the tragedy that people are actually being wiped off the face of the earth and their culture is being wiped out. That is not touched; it’s considered in bad taste.

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