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Produced by Anne Henderson, Kent Martin and Abbey Neidik; directed by Anne Henderson
National Film Board of Canada, D.L.I. Productions and Arcady Films, 1992. VHS cassette, 56:42 min., $26.95
Distributed by the National Film Board of Canada.

Grades 10 and up/Ages 15 and up

Reviewed by MaryLynn Gagne.

Volume 21 Number 3
1993 May

For many Canadians, Tibet is a land shrouded in mystery, conjuring up visions of Buddhist monks at prayer, monasteries nestled in steep mountainsides, Lhasa apso dogs, and a quiet, rural way of life. In fact, as we learn in A Song for Tibet, many of the monks have fled into exile, monasteries have been destroyed, the small dogs which guarded the lamaseries have been shot, and the lives of a simple, religious people have changed irrevocably under Chinese domina­tion.

The story of the Tibetan struggle to preserve an ancient culture in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles is chronicled through the eyes of two Canadians with strong connections to Tibet. Thubten Samdup (Sam) escaped from Tibet at the age of nine, following the 1959 uprising against the Chinese. At present he teaches traditional performing arts in Montreal, and heads the Canada-Tibet Committee from an office in his basement. Twenty-five-year-old Dicki Chhoyang was born in a refugee camp in India and knows Tibet only through stories recounted by her parents. As the viewer travels with Dicki and Sam from the suburbs of Montreal to the mountains of northern India, a powerful and disturbing drama unfolds.

In Dharamsala, India, the cultural centre for Tibetans-in-exile and their international supporters, the two Canadians listen to stories of hardship and oppression from recent arrivals who have survived the arduous two-month-long trek over the Himalayas. A woman describes being imprisoned and tortured for the crime of carrying a photograph of the Dalai Lama. A young boy hangs his head as he tells Dicki how he arrived at the camp by way of Nepal after his parents were captured by Chinese soldiers. A twenty-four-year-old monk explains with a smile why members of the religious orders have been leaders in righting for a free Tibet: "Because monks and nuns do not have children, it is better for them to lead the demonstrations; if they die they do not leave many behind them."

The segments of A Song for Tibet filmed in Canada in the fall of 1990 revolve around the arrival at the Chhoyang household of Dicki's Tibetan aunt, whose visit coincides with preparations by the Canada-Tibet Committee for the Dalai Lama's first public appearance in Canada. The film culminates with scenes of the Dalai Lama speaking in a Catholic church, and meeting with minor government officials. The Prime Minister is notably absent. Dicki's family travels by bus to Ottawa, and, in a poignant final scene, her aunt is overcome with emotion as she finally meets in person her spiritual leader.

A Song for Tibet is a lovingly crafted tribute to the enduring spirit of the Tibetan people. The cinematography is of the exceptional quality we have come to expect from NFB productions. Moving personal testimony, well-selected on-location footage, and striking archival photographs are skillfully interwoven into a nearly seamless whole. A short video-clip of a raid by Chinese soldiers on a Tibetan monastery lends a chilling air of authenticity to the film.

A Song for Tibet could be used with secondary school students studying history, world religions, or ethics. The film raises a number of concerns, and teachers might wish to point out opposing viewpoints on the Tibetan situation.

If the Chinese were brutal in their suppression of Tibetan culture, did they also "liberate" the country from an elitist system of serfdom and slavery? Did the progress evidenced in new roads and improved schools come at too high a cost for the Tibetan people? And what should be the attitude of Canada and the world community towards Tibet? Are human rights abuses being over­looked in order to avoid offending a powerful trading partner?

While there are no easy answers, this fascinating documentary is a welcome introduction to a story too long ignored.

MaryLynn Gagne is a reference librarian with the Education Library, University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
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