China: Music film about cultural exploitation and resistance

24 September 2010

The film ‘Tibet in Song’ shows Chinese officials and troops persecuting anyone performing Tibetan folk music. It is directed by musicologist and former Tibetan political prisoner, Ngawang Choephel, and has been described as “a story of beauty, pain, brutality and resilience”.

‘Tibet in Song’ is a tale of cultural exploitation and resistance, which includes the director’s own imprisonment for recording the very songs at the centre of the film.

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“Among the most distressing scenes in the film are descriptions by three female political prisoners of their being tortured for refusing to mouth Chinese patriotic songs. The women told of other prisoners like them who were killed by their guards,” wrote a reviewer.

‘Tibet in Song’ provides a “raw and uncensored look at Tibet as it stands today, a country plagued by Chinese brutality, yet willing to fight for the existence of its unique cultural heritage,” writes the production company on the website for the film.

The director’s story
Ngawang Choephel is a graduate of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India and a musician who released his first album of Tibetan folk songs entitled ‘Melody in Exile’, in 1993.

After starting his career as a music teacher in India, he traveled to the US as a Fulbright scholar at Middlebury College, VT where he studied international music as well as filmmaking.

He planned to use his new training to preserve Tibetan song and dance – traditions that were endangered because Tibetan teens were more interested in pop music, and because Chinese officials were conducting a systematic campaign to obliterate Tibetan culture.

In 1995, he went to Tibet to record and videotape Tibetan folk songs in order to make a documentary film, spending two months driving through the countryside filming people singing. Then he was arrested by China’s State Security Bureau and held incommunicado and without trial for over 14 months. When he was finally brought to trial in a closed court, it found him guilty of “espionage and counter-revolutionary activities”, and handed down a sentence of 18 years, one of the longest ever given to a Tibetan political prisoner.

A highly publicized international campaign that began with his mother’s solitary protests, and later involved musicians like Annie Lennox, the Tibetan Freedom Concert and US Senators James Jeffords and Patrick Leahy from Vermont, finally secured his release in 2002, after six and a half year’s imprisonment. He now lives in New York City pursuing his filmmaking career.

‘Tibet in Song’ premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 where it won the Special Jury Award in the World Documentary Competition. Since then, the film has won numerous awards and has been screened worldwide.

“Tibet in Song” made its theatrical release in New York City on 24 September 2010, and will be released nationwide in the US. A worldwide release is also being planned.



Ngawang Choephel

“If you sang a folk song like this, they would immediately pull your hair, kick, and arrest you…”
Tibetan singer interviewed in the film

China — with Tibet marked with a red line 

More information

‘Tibet in Song’ – official website of the film:

‘Tibet in Song’ – official profile on Facebook:

Ngawang Chophel’s biography in Wikipedia, the open encyclopedia:
Interview with Ngawang ChophelWeekend America – 9 August 2008:
‘The Crime of Cultural Preservation’

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