Films that portray the human cost of refugees fleeing genocidal dictatorships seldom hit the right notes, but when they do, the results are stunning. Such is the case with “The Sweet Requiem” a film by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, a husband and wife team who write, direct and produce documentaries and feature films with a special focus on contemporary Tibet. Tibet has faded from headlines, which makes “The Sweet Requiem” all the more powerful and wrenching, as it lays bare the suffering of the Tibetan people without lapsing into the “Shangrila Syndrome”, a phrase coined by exile Tibet’s foremost author, Jamyang Norbu, in which Westerners paint comforting stereotypes of the needy-but-cheerful Tibetan refugee who is genetically enlightened and is therefore not allowed to be weak, frightened, human. “The Sweet Requiem” succeeds first and foremost as a work of art, a flawless union of acting, cinematography, dialogue and drama that captures the Tibetan refugee struggle as powerfully as Satyajit Ray’s “Appu Trilogy” portrayed the tribulations of a rural Bengali family.
The film opens in a Tibetan enclave in India’s capital Delhi, where Dolkar’s friends celebrate her 25th birthday with cake and song. Dolkar aspires to study business, shares a small room with another woman, rides a tuk-tuk to a beauty salon where she attends to impatient Indian clients. One day she joins a gathering of Tibetan activists and sees Gompo, which triggers memories of her traumatic flight from Tibet at age 8, which unfold in flashbacks that weave in and out of the narrative. Gompo, like Dolkar, was born in Chinese-occupied Tibet and has fled to India. Dolkar trails Gompo through Majnu-ka-Tila, the Tibetan refugee settlement in north Delhi, where he is bullied by two Tibetan spies who offer him a cash bribe to undertake an unspecified mission in Dharamshala, home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile government.
“The Sweet Requiem” conveys the harsh reality of Tibetans who were sent to India as children, only to find themselves isolated and orphaned in exile. You can feel the heat and squalor of urban India, where the fading dream of a Free Tibet is symbolized by a weathered photo of the Dalai Lama where Dolkar intones her morning prayers, a candlelight vigil at a Tibetan temple where prayer wheels croak on rusty hinges. In the evening Dolkar practices Bollywood dance, gazes at the familial rituals of her Indian neighbors, tries and fails to reach her family in Tibet on her cellphone. Jampa Kalsang, the foremost Tibetan film actor of his generation, gives the performance of his career as the tortured Gompo, who once worked as an underground guide, leading refugees over the mountain passes linking Tibet and Nepal. Wandering through the crooked lanes of old Delhi in search of redemption, his face is a weathered map of grief, his anxious gait suggests hidden trauma, his voice quavers with fear and rage. The scenes of Gompo’s encounter with two Tibetan spies are chilling, exposing just how far Chinese security forces will go to silence and punish those who dare to speak of Chinese atrocities in Tibet.
“The Sweet Requiem” comes at a time when Tibetan civilization is under siege, eclipsed by China’s quest for global hegemony and “compassion fatigue” in the West. March 2019 marked the 60th anniversary of the narrow escape of the Dalai Lama to safety in India, where the Tibetan leader just celebrated his 84th birthday. The singular achievement of directors Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin is the unsparing realism with which they portray the Tibetan exile world, the poignancy of Dolkar and Gompo’s aspirations and agonies, stripping away the false narrative of the Tibetans as the world’s most successful refugees. “The Sweet Requiem” is a cinematic masterpiece, conveying the universality of the Tibetan experience, which is not an ideal or a cause; it is the story of people caught in the net of time and change. You don’t have to know anything about Tibet, China or India to be mesmerized by the story and the characters, you just have to sit in a theater and watch the film unfold.
The film releases in New York’s IFC Center from July 12 to 18, a rare event for a Tibetan language feature film. New York Tibetans should not miss this opportunity to catch the film and lend it their support.