Directed by: Ngawang Choephel
At: Kendall Square
Running time: 86 minutes
Unrated (as PG-13: civic unrest, atrocity images)
In English, Tibetan, and Mandarin, with subtitles
By Ty Burr
‘Tibet in Song’’ offers blunt, heartbreaking proof that the best way to murder a country is to murder its culture, and the best way to murder its culture is to kill its music.
The musicologist Ngawang Choephel — born in Tibet, raised in India, now a resident of New York — traveled back to his birth country in 1995 to record the effects of a half century of Chinese occupation on the Tibetan folk arts. He was arrested as a spy and sentenced to 18 years in prison; an international protest freed him in 2002. Now he comes at the subject from another direction: an impassioned documentary polemic that functions as both a tour of a fading world of song and dance and a cry of rage at its snuffing out.
Choephel tells his story in the first person and applies it to his people as a whole. This isn’t a stretch; his path mirrors that of the Tibetan diaspora, as does his growing frustration. “Tibet in Song’’ interweaves the unconfiscated footage from the filmmaker’s 1995 trip, archival footage, and interviews with artists and refugees living in the exile city of Dharamsala, India, where the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts is the last official outpost of a once-vibrant folk tradition.
The movie serves as a thumbnail history of post-WWII Tibet — the 1950 invasion, the influx of Han Chinese, the uprisings of 1959, 1969, 1988, and 2008 — but the focus is on the PRC’s systematic crushing of the country’s culture, from decade-long bans on public song and dance to public loudspeakers blaring Communist marching songs and Chinese pop around the clock. What the authorities can’t squelch they co-opt: We see scenes from fake Tibetan folk operas and choir competitions, with traditional melodies bowdlerized by pop instrumentation and nationalistic lyrics. Local audiences watch these shams with dull, expressionless faces, prisoners in their own country.
Choephel understands that music can also function as resistance and that silence can be the most powerful protest of all: He interviews three young women repeatedly beaten in prison for refusing to sing the Chinese national anthem. They were the lucky ones: Five other prisoners died without giving in.
The title of “Tibet in Song’’ is inherently ironic: The music that reflects the modern state is a cacophony of cross-pollination from East and West. Pop star Yadong sings Tibetan pop with Chinese lyrics while a punk act rages in the native tongue with rock ’n’ roll chords. The old songs live on only in the mountain farm villages or in exile, among aging refugees and committed professional performers. In Lhasa, the nightclubs are filled with karaoke machines and syrupy Chinese love songs. Choephel films an ancient woman performing an ancient song in the streets until a policeman comes along. “Grandmother, don’t dance here,’’ he tells her, and she hobbles off into the past.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com