Chinese forces invaded and occupied the independent nation of Tibet in 1950 and for 60 years have tried to woo Tibetans away from their religion, culture, folksongs, music, and traditional dances.
In 1995, Ngawang Choephel, the director of this riveting documentary, decided to return to his homeland and film the few examples of Tibetan folk music he could find. In exile with his mother since the age of two, he attended the Dalai Lama's Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, and subsequently committed himself to the arduous task of documenting this music before it became extinct. "The music was calling me," he says, "and there was no turning back."
On his arrival in Tibet, the filmmaker is astonished to discover the omnipresence of Chinese songs blaring from speakers in large and small cities. Some of these songs are based on Tibetan melodies, but the lyrics consist of Communist propaganda; years ago, Mao established a culture of mind control, surmising that 20 performers are better than 1,000 soldiers. In Tibet, both hold sway over the people. Choephel is delighted to find courageous rural folk who are not afraid to share their traditional folksongs which are usually tied to the routines of daily life — working in the fields, cooking, churning butter, or making love. He meets a young girl whose Tibetan Buddhist perspective shines through her song:
There are three adornments on the land,
They are the trees, pasture, and flowers,
I pray that I see them often.
Choephel sends half of his folk-performance recordings home to India with a friend. Then he heads to Ngari, his birthplace, with hopes of seeing his father and doing more recordings of the folksongs of the villagers. But Choephel is arrested and imprisoned for more than a year, after which he is given an 18-year sentence for espionage. While in prison, this zealous ethnomusicologist continues his project, secretly writing folksong lyrics, learned from other prisoners, on cigarette wrappers, while his activist mother carries on a global campaign to free him. Amnesty International, Students for a Free Tibet, and a series of Tibetan Freedom concerts (1996–2001) attract the attention of celebrities and people around the world. After six and one-half years, Choephel is released from prison in January 2002.
Tibet in Song presents the remarkable odyssey of a brave and committed Tibetan patriot whose mission to document and record folksongs from his homeland also records the Orwellian tactics of the Chinese government to obliterate the religious and cultural history of the Tibetan people. Through a series of interviews with men and women who have been imprisoned, Choephel conveys the fallout from two resistance movements: in 1959 when 86,000 Tibetans lost their lives; and in 2008 when 200 were killed and thousands disappeared. One of the most poignant scenes is with three young women who were imprisoned and then beaten and tortured for refusing to sing the Chinese national anthem. In their faces and voices we see and honor the fear and the courage it takes to make a stand for human rights in a regime of such immense power and resources. Choephel himself emerges a hero, a man of integrity and passion whose love and loyalty to Tibet is a song that stirs our souls.