While recent refugee crises, whether those involving Syrians, Yazidis, Rohingya or Africans, have impacted global politics, another from the last century is gradually being forgotten by the world.
Now, a film that will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival will serve as a reminder of the exodus of Tibetans, one that still continues, as their homeland was annexed by China in 1950.
The Sweet Requiem is a joint India-US production from filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, based in Dharamsala, the seat of Tibet’s government-in-exile. The filmmakers were thrilled it was making its debut at a prominent platform such as TIFF, as did their 2005 project, Dreaming Lhasa.
That Toronto boasts of a sizeable Tibetan diaspora bolsters its attraction as a venue for the screening.
The film is mainly in the Tibetan language, and set largely within the community settled in Delhi. Its fulcrum is 26-year-old Dolkar and her life as a refugee, counterpointed with flashbacks to the perilous journey she undertook as a child, along with her father, leaving her mother and sister behind, to flee Tibet and find sanctuary elsewhere.
TIFF’s artistic director Cameron Bailey said, “You see the period in India and the nuances of the social milieu there and the story of leaving as well. It’s quite a powerful story and I think they’re doing something quite remarkable.”
The film’s protagonist is played by newcomer Tenzin Dolker, who had no prior acting experience but carries the movie with a subtle but potent performance. As Sarin pointed out, there is no film industry in exile.
“Finding the right character to play Dolkar was crucial. She did a little audition and we realised she had the potential,” Sonam explained about the choice.
Obviously, the filmmakers couldn’t shoot in Tibet, given how politically charged their project was, though the sense of oppression is conveyed through off-camera vignettes, from phone conversations to videos of self-immolations watched on a phone.
Instead, Ladakh substituted for the rugged landscape of Tibet. Sarin said filming there was “quite difficult”, given the altitude of about 15,000 feet. But they were also fortunate: Snow was required for certain scenes and after eight years, there was sufficient snowfall to meet their requirement.
Another challenge is that of China flexing its muscles in the film world, as they experienced in the past. In 2010, as they had a film at the Palm Springs Film Festival, the Chinese yanked two productions in retaliation.
That makes the selection at TIFF particularly meaningful, as Sonam said, “So, the question for festivals would be: Is it worth showing one exile Tibetan film that comes along once every few years if that might mean upsetting the Chinese authorities and losing access to Chinese films?”
For now though, this moving story will be told at TIFF. And the filmmakers are hopeful of taking it to a larger audience, including one in India. Sonam said, “We would love our film to be widely shown. After more than 60 years, most people have no idea what their (the exiled community’s) lives are about.”