It’s easy to be moved by reports of the growing number of refugees displaced by political, religious, and environmental instability. And even easier, after the initial feelings of shock or sympathy subside, to move onto the next news story, or tune out altogether.
Filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Sonam Tenzing have devoted their careers to bringing unsettling narratives to light and encouraging the public to reckon with their complexities. The directors’ partnership began in 1985 through a shared love for the California Bay Area’s art cinema houses, radical student movements of the 60s and 70s, and a graduate thesis project documenting a rural Sikh community in Northern California. They are now married and live with their two children in Dharamsala, where they co-founded the Dharamsala International Film Festival in 2012 to enable and support the work of independent filmmakers in the Indian Himalayas.
The Sweet Requiem, their drama many years in the making, gives renewed saliency to the Tibetan refugee crisis by focusing on Dolkar, a Tibetan woman in her mid-twenties who, at the age of eight, fled Tibet with her father. Years later, the stable life she has built for herself in Delhi is disrupted when she crosses paths with a man from her past, an encounter that unleashes a torrent of traumatic childhood memories.
Tricycle spoke with Sarin and Tenzing about the political dimensions of their work, some of the Buddhist concepts that influenced them, and the cinematic hurdles that came up on set.
Why do you think Dolkar’s story—and the way it is told—is an important one to share now?
One of the issues that the Nangpa La incident highlighted was the fact that so many of the Tibetans making that dangerous crossing were children. By the time we started writing the script, many of these children had become adults, and we personally knew several of them. We found their story deeply poignant: they had been sent to India as young children to gain a Tibetan education but never ended up returning to Tibet; many never saw their families again, and several had lost complete contact with them.
Even within the exile Tibetan community, these kids were different, caught in a strange limbo of being neither here nor there, and very little effort had been made to understand their special pain and trauma. This is why it was important for us to feature one of these children, so that we could at least begin to understand their situation.
The film swings between two extremes: the high Himalayas in freezing conditions and claustrophobic Delhi in the height of summer. What was it like to film in these environments?
This presented some major logistical challenges, particularly as we were making the film on a low budget. We shot the mountain scenes in Ladakh, the Himalayan region that borders Tibet and India. The snow sequences were shot at an altitude of 15,000 feet in sub-zero temperatures! Working at that altitude was really tough, but no one complained, not least the actors, who had to do repeated takes in freezing conditions. But we did have one casualty. Our boom operator who was from Bombay had breathing difficulties and collapsed on location. We had to fly him home.
From the freezing heights of Ladakh we were plunged into the full furnace of Delhi’s summer. The temperature hovered around 45 degrees Celsius (112 F) and must have soared much higher when we were shooting indoors in small spaces. We were shooting sync sound so needed the set to be as silent as possible, which meant turning all the fans and air conditioning off. One day our camera, a battle-hardened Arri Alexa, simply stopped working. It took a few hours of cooling it down with fans before it coughed to life again!
In what ways have Buddhist teachings, practices, or philosophy informed the making of this film and your approach to filmmaking more broadly?
The Buddhist concepts of karma, dependent origination, interdependence, and impermanence inform our personal lives and seep through our films as well. In The Sweet Requiem, the repercussions of the choices we make in life, directly or inadvertently, is central to the story. A chance encounter inextricably binds Gompo and Dolkar in a cycle of karmic consequences that determines the course of their lives. The only way they can find freedom from the weight of their past is through acceptance and forgiveness.
The Sweet Requiem continues your ongoing inquiry into the exile Tibetan community as it evolves and constantly redefines itself. How do you envision the conversation moving forward from here?
For Tibetan viewers in the diaspora, we hope the film provides an opportunity to reflect on our situation as exiles, and an impetus to externalize and discuss some of the trauma and suffering we carry silently within us. For a larger audience, we hope the film reminds them that the situation in Tibet remains unresolved and is as desperate as ever. We also hope that The Sweet Requiem conveys the universality of the refugee experience, whether from Tibet or Syria or Africa or Central America, and provokes in the viewer a more compassionate understanding of their situation.
We have long believed that Tibetans should tell their own stories, and our hope is that The Sweet Requiem captures a moment in the exile Tibetan experience in an authentic, personal and intimate way.
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