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'A film like ours is important for an Indian audience'

Last updated on: October 10, 2018 15:11 IST

'China is monitoring films like ours and making sure it doesn't get a platform.'
Indira Kannan reports from Toronto.

The Sweet Requiem

IMAGE: A scene from The Sweet Requiem. Photographs: The Sweet Requiem/Facebook

In September 2006, Chinese border guards fired on a group of people crossing the Tibet-Nepal border at Nangpa La pass, killing a teenaged Buddhist nun. A Romanian cameraman who was with a climbing expedition near the pass captured the shooting in a video, which soon went viral on YouTube.

That was the starting point for a new script by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, and became The Sweet Requiem, the second feature film made by the veteran documentary film-makers, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.

In an interview, Sonam said, "For the first time there was visual evidence of how Chinese border guards were treating people who were escaping, basically shooting them in cold blood. We knew it was a dangerous journey, but to actually see it on video really shocked Ritu and me."

"It made us think of what it was like for these people who were crossing the border and what happened to them after they came across."

The Sweet Requiem

IMAGE: Photographer Pablo Bartholomew flanked by Tenzin Dolker and Geeta Sudan on the sets of The Sweet Requiem.

The film shines a light on the Tibetan community in India through its protagonist Tenzin Dolkar, a resident of the refugee colony in Delhi's Majnu Ka Tila. She works in a beauty salon and also volunteers as an activist for the Tibetan freedom movement.

At the Buddhist temple one day, she spots a new, but familiar face, one that brings back traumatic memories of fleeing Tibet years ago as a child with her father on an ill-fated expedition across the Himalayas.

Her group's former guide Gompo, who Dolkar has blamed all her life for the tragedy that befell their journey, has now resurfaced in Delhi, but is he what he seems?

A threatening visit to Gompo's room by a pair of Chinese-backed Tibetans adds to the menace and mystery surrounding him as Dolkar feels drawn to investigate further.

This was not an easy film to make.

 

With its subject material, raising funds was a challenge.

"It's a film that's set in India but it's about Tibetan exiles. It's almost like a foreign film; even in India people don't think of it as an Indian film and that's another reason it's so difficult to raise funds," Sonam said.

"We actually started a Kickstarter campaign for the first time to get us to this point," Sarin added

The Sweet Requiem

IMAGE: Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. Photograph: Kind courtesy Ritu Tenzing/Facebook

Then there were logistical issues like location and casting. Ladakh stands in for Tibet, but finding Tibetan actors was tough.

A majority of the cast members in the film had never acted before. Tenzin Dolker, who was born and brought up in a Tibetan refugee settlement in Karnataka, and now lives in New Orleans, answered a call for auditions on Facebook for the lead role, even though she had never faced a camera before.

As her near namesake Dolkar, she delivers a strong, yet understated performance, partly drawn from personal experience.

"I know a lot of people who've come from Tibet and had a similar experience," Dolker said, adding, "My father has come from Tibet, my grandfather has come from Tibet. I'm so happy that the story is told in a beautiful way."

The Sweet Requiem

A bigger worry for the film-makers was the potential reaction from China.

As its global influence has expanded, China has grown more assertive and brazen about crushing the Tibetan movement.

Sonam and Sarin had felt it first hand in 2010 when the Chinese government put pressure on the Palm Springs International Film Festival in the US not to screen their documentary The Sun Behind the Clouds.

When the organisers refused, China pulled out its own films from the festival.

"We know that they are monitoring films like ours and making sure it doesn't get a platform. And they succeed as well because a lot of festivals won't touch a film like ours because they are involved with China at multiple levels," Sonam said.

TIFF, one of the biggest and most influential film festivals in the world, has given The Sweet Requiem a huge platform; it premiered in a sold-out theatre.

The film-makers hope it will attract similar attention in India. As Sonam said, "Although there are a fair number of Tibetan refugees in India and most Indians have probably encountered Tibetans on the street, they don't know anything about their lives, why they are there or what their story is."

"In that sense a film like ours is important even for an Indian audience."

Indira Kannan
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