TIFF 2018: Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam on The Sweet Requiem, Tibetans in exile, and indie films
A fiction film is always a good way to pass on a message to audiences, say Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam
In The Sweet Requiem, a film by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, the protagonist Dolkar (Tenzin Dolker) can’t quite understand why Tibetans self-immolate. While she still breaks down over flashes from the time she walked across the deadly cold passes of the Himalayas to escape into India as a child, Dolkar, a Tibetan living in exile in Delhi, lives the usual Delhi youngster’s life peppered with birthday parties, dance classes, and very loving friendships. It is only when she runs into a man she knew as a child, that her past comes tumbling back and she realises the politics and threat that is inherent in her identity. Not only does she embrace this dual life, she also sets out on a thriller-like quest to reconcile a big chunk of her past with her present.
While both the past and the present are defined by longing for a home that she might never be able to return to, Dolkar is finally able to chart out a life for herself where she realises that not everything that meets the eye, is necessarily true and that even when people act in ways they cannot control, they almost always leave an indelible mark on the lives of the people around.
Shot between the contrasting landscapes of Ladakh and Delhi, The Sweet Requiem is a coming-of-age film where the protagonist not just attains a state of intellectual adulthood but also a political adulthood that makes her question the truths she has lived her life by. Navigating through a world that is dangerous and threatening, she finds a sense of community that promises to see her through.
Firstpost caught up with Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, whose filmmaking careers have been dedicated to documenting the lives of Tibetans in exile on film, shortly after the premiere of The Sweet Requiem at TIFF.
You made Dreaming Lhasa more than a decade ago. Is The Sweet Requiem a part of a series or do you see the latter as an accompaniment for the former?
Ritu: I don’t think we see it as either of those. Perhaps because both the films are set within the world of Tibetans in exile, people read a sequence into the films.
Tenzing: There are certainly common concerns between the two films. Being young and being in exile comes with an accompanied search for identity and roots. So yes, that is common to both the films and those are definitely questions we are concerned with, and questions that we keep trying to explore through our films. So you could say there is a thematic continuation but the stories are different.
You’ve very subtly made a pertinent comment on the inherent politics of being a Tibetan youth in exile, in the film. Would you like to speak about that?
Tenzing: Oh absolutely! You can’t escape it because the mere fact of our being in exile (Sonam was born to Tibetan refugees in Darjeeling) is predicated on a political situation. When you’re in exile, that is even more pronounced and highlighted, so we are constantly made aware that we are here because we had to run away from our homeland, because the Chinese came and took over our country by force and have not left since. Of course, everyone has their own daily lives to take care of, so the degrees of direct political involvement vary but the politics of it affects every Tibetan in exile, and the people around them.
So, your is your art your activism?
Tenzing: Our lives are so aligned with the exiled Tibetan community and the struggle, that their frustrations and demands have always made their way into our films. This is a “fiction feature film” but everything depicted in it is actually happening to this community, so it is a very conscious amalgamation of documentary and fiction filmmaking styles. Our films are not divorced from the rest of our lives, and the Tibetan struggle has been so integral to our lives that I don’t think we can think of a way of separating our art from activism, they feed off each other. We come from a documentary film background and that really informs the way we make films even within the context of fiction films.
How did you find a cast of Tibetan youth, in India?
Ritu: Most young Tibetans, like any other young people, are very active on social media. So we put out a casting call and got a good response. A lot of people wanted to be involved because you see, young people want to be in movies but for young Tibetans, the opportunity to actually be in one, is very rare. Then we auditioned them, conducted a few workshops before finally zeroing in on the final cast.
It was important for us to find the actor to play the Dolkar character before proceeding anywhere with casting. We were really scared that Tenzing would put in all this work into writing this script but then we may not even find the right person to play Dolkar. We found her pretty early on.
Tenzing: I had already written the story!
Ritu: Yes, but we developed it around her, based the nuances of the character around what Tenzin Dolker is like, in real life. She told us she was a dancer so we made Dolkar someone who enjoys Bollywood dancing. So we adapted and improvised around Tenzin. That was important for us.
What about your crew?
Ritu: There are some Tibetans, mostly Indians and our cameraman, David McFarland, is American. We try and mentor a lot of Tibetan youth to learn the craft and then assist us in making films. Our associate director, the script supervisor and lot of the production crew, are Tibetans. There have been a whole bunch of very young and creative Tibetan youth involved in making this film.
Tenzing: Our assistant cameraman, too. For us that is a very important part of what we do. There are not opportunities like this opening up everyday for young Tibetans in exile so we need to create them. A feature film like this will come along, say, once in ten years, and that too within a very niche context.
It is interesting how you play with the backdrop of Delhi in the film…
Ritu, Tenzing: Tibetans are mostly congregated in specific pockets of Delhi: Majnu Ka Tila, a little bit in Safdarjung so we have shot there. But we also wanted to give the character of Dolkar a sense that she is not bound by these pockets. She lives in the city, travels to work, travels to her dance class and parties with friends. It’s not so much about assimilation but more of a transcending of boundaries to become a part of the mainstream city.
And you also shoot in Ladakh. Any memorable incidents?
Ritu: I haven’t really thought about this…
Tenzing: Oh how about that time when our boom operator…
Ritu: Oh no! I don’t know if we should talk about that! It was very challenging to shoot in those altitudes and we had a crew with people from Mumbai...
Tenzing: ...And the boom operator, poor guy, collapsed. It was this sudden loud sound! He couldn’t handle the altitude of 15,000 feet. He was very scared he’d die and we kept telling him he will be fine. It was very distressing for him.
It just goes on to show the hardship people, who are not even half as prepared as we were, suffer to just cross over to a safe space. Also the dedication of the film crew to even agree to go and shoot there, was commendable.
Ritu: We felt terrible for him. I don’t know if that’s memorable per se, but we have a story!
There is this idea of Indian cinema that is predominantly Hindi, and is driven by the larger Bollywood discourse. Where does your filmmaking fit into that grand narrative?
Ritu: Well our filmmaking can’t get more independent than this! In spite of that grand narrative, there is a lot of excellent films coming out of regional, independent cinema practices. It is very important to us that those films exist because we need to hear these voices and can’t afford to have one narrative drowning those. That’s where our filmmaking fits in. In our case it’s a little more complicated because when one makes a film in Marathi or in Assamese, they know there is a dedicated potential audience who speak that language. We don’t have that.
Tenzing: There really isn’t a sizeable dedicated population of cinema-going Tibetans in India. That demographic is too small. Most movie-going Indians don’t even know where Tibet is!
Ritu: They’ll constantly ask, “Why are we watching this?”, “Who are these people? What language are they speaking?” However, things are changing and there is always hope. I think people could be made to be interested in films like ours, it’s more a question of exploring how the theatrical distribution setup will allow these films some space. That is the real problem.
What plans do you have for an Indian release?
Ritu: This is the world premiere at TIFF, and we don’t have concrete plans of a release yet. We’d obviously love to release it but the question for small films like us, is always about how can we go about releasing it. We’ve had crowdfunding campaigns to help us cover costs for the film, so obviously this is not the kind of film distributors see a lot of money in. It’s a struggle to find a way to put films like ours, out in the world. There are young people who are passionate about various social justice issues, so there definitely could be an interested audience. But the theatre won’t allow a space for that to happen. The whole system is rigged against smaller, independent films.
So how do you see yourself taking this film to places?
Ritu: I don’t know, honestly. We are open to all kinds of outlets and will explore and research as much as we can. These days, there are even trucks that drive around cities and towns, playing films. So there are many creative options that we can explore, our innovative solutions will have to challenge the way the film distribution businesses work. Streaming sites like Netflix are, of course, always an option. They already have our older documentary film playing.
Tenzing: We just want people to see the film. We’d love for activist groups to use this film in their discussions and activities because it touches upon a lot of issues Tibetan activist groups are fighting for. A fiction film is always a good way to pass on a message to audiences.
What are you working on next?
Ritu: We are working on an art project! We will have a solo show in Berlin which will feature a lot of Tenzing’s family archives, archives from another film we made years back called The Shadow Circus: the CIA in Tibet and this will be on exhibit during the Berlinale. The idea is to feature filmmaker-artists so Tenzing and I are doing that, and we are very excited!
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