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Tibetan gift of healing in peril
Deseret Morning News[Friday, January 25, 2008 17:24]
S.L. woman's film says sons of lhapas not having visions

Sarah Sifers, rear, films Pau Pasang Rhichoe, a lhapa, as he begins a healing ceremony. Lhapas have visions of unusual animals or people. (Carol Peters)
Sarah Sifers, rear, films Pau Pasang Rhichoe, a lhapa, as he begins a healing ceremony. Lhapas have visions of unusual animals or people. (Carol Peters)
By Susan Whitney

This story does not have a surprise ending. Sarah Sifers, the documentary filmmaker, titled her work "Fate of the Lhapa," and she lets you know up front what the lhapa's fate will be:

They will die out.

The Tibetans in exile in Nepal are about to lose their healers, the men they call "lhapa." For their healing ceremonies to live on, the current lhapa would have to be teaching the next generation — but none of those in the next generation seem to have inherited the gift of healing.

All of the lhapa's sons and nephews have passed the age of puberty. And it is at puberty that they would have begun having visions, if they were going to have them at all.

The visions are what alerts the rest of the community to a lhapa in their midst. If a young man has visions of unusual animals or people, there's proof that he is a fledging lhapa. He will tell his relatives about his visions, and he will be taught and nurtured and will become a healer, and the Tibetan ceremonies will live on.

Sifers is a social worker, living in Salt Lake City. Her interest in filmmaking began a decade ago when she went to Nepal with a friend, an anthropologist from California who was doing research on the lhapas of Nepal. As a social worker, Sifers was fascinated by the power of the healing ceremonies.

When Sifers and her friend and their interpreter met with Pau Karma Wangchuk, Wangchuk said he wished someone would film him doing the ceremonies. He said he would feel better if the ceremonies could be recorded for posterity. That way, his great-grandsons would have something to learn from if, after his death, any of them should show signs of being visionaries.

Sifers says, "I was so impressed with him, so moved by this history. The minute he made the request, it just hit me, 'I could do this for him."'

Sifers had never known anything about filmmaking, but when she came home to Utah, she started learning. She went to the Sundance Film Festival and talked to filmmakers about what kind of camera to take to a place with no electricity. (They suggested a Canon XL1.) She went to Performance Audio and asked about wireless microphones.

In the fall of 2001, she made her way back to Nepal, loaded with equipment and batteries. At that point, she says, two other lhapa approached her and asked if she would record them also. Sifers stayed for six weeks and came back with more than 100 hours of footage. She went back five more times, ending up with more than 400 hours of footage.

Back in Utah, she talked to professors at the University of Utah's film department and began interviewing film editors. She formed a nonprofit, "Indigenous Lenses," and began holding fund-raisers so she'd be able to hire an editor. Eventually she hired Genia Gaudet.

"Fate of the Lhapa" runs for an hour. Its pace is slow. There are times that the viewer watches one of the shaman's speaking at length while below his face, on the screen, is a three-word translation of what he is saying. The viewer has time to read and reread and reread the three words.

"That was a conscious decision on my part," says Sifers. "I thought, 'They are so eloquent, and so much of their lives have been taken from them. I didn't want to take their voices from them."'

Wanchuk is in his late 80s now. The other two lhapa, Pau Pasang Rhichoe and Pau Nyima Dhondup, are younger. Still, none of their descendants have evidenced any visions.

Sifers goes back every year to the refugee camp where the Tibetans she has come to know are living out their lives. The government of Nepal will not allow them to become citizens or to work. Sifer's nonprofit is supporting seven elders, now, she says, and sending nine girls to school.

Western medicine is not widely available and is too expensive for the Tibetans when it is available. Still, Sifers believes that the younger generation of Tibetans would like to take advantage of Western medicine. They respect it. So far she has not met any young Tibetan in exile who has the gift — or the desire — to become a lhapa.

If you go

What: "Fate of the Lhapa," documentary film

Where: Park City Film and Music Festival, Main Street Mall, 333 Main, Park City

When: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.

How much: $10 at the door

Web: parkcityfilmmusicfestival.org

Also: Filmmaker Sarah Sifers and composer William Susman will be on hand. There is also a free showing of the film at the University of Utah Olpin Union Building at 4 p.m. Tuesday, courtesy of the U.'s Women's Resource Center.
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