Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 9.3: Ghost of the 10th

Movie image from The Sun Behind the Clouds, a film by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. Sarin and Sonam are directors of the new Dharamsala International Film Festival in India. The two are CAAMFest 2014 Retrospective Honorees.

“Ten” is a magical number. Single digits go multiple at 10’s transition. Our two hands full of fingers begin to require another’s for further increase. No wonder the “ghost” of HOTEL VALENTINE, Cibo Matto’s latest release, lives on the 10th floor. Ten and above tells us that love, Valentine’s passion, requires more solace than a single digit can provide. At 10, ordinals become extraordinary. Today, March 10th, 2014 marks the 55th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. Two fives make ten, so it’s especially significant that this year, CAAMFest honors two filmmakers steeped in the Tibetan cause, the married couple Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. Here’s hoping that the subjective, contradictory perspectives and purposes of the Tibetan and Chinese people can become a pluralistic, intersubjective vision that can bring about change. This blogger hopes that this Year of the Wood Horse brings protection for the Tibetan people and their culture, religion, language and environment. I hope the ghost of the 10th becomes zeitgeist.

I had the honor of interviewing Sarin and Sonam via email. Our exchange follows. Be sure to catch their films DREAMING LHASA and THE SUN BEHIND THE CLOUDS at CAAMFest. In addition, WHEN HARI GOT MARRIED is screening at California College of Arts on March 19th at 7 pm (1111 8th Street), and THE SHADOW CIRCUS: THE CIA IN TIBET will play at Blum Hall at UC Berkeley on March 21st at 5 pm. The latter two are free screenings.

RC: First off—did the two of you meet in the Bay Area?  Can you tell us about what drew you here, and how you met? Were you both interested in film at the time? Did you start attending (the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, now known as CAAMFest) events back then?

Ritu: Actually, Tenzing I first met as undergraduates in Delhi University and became close friends. After graduating, we went on separate paths, although we stayed in touch, until we ended up meeting again in the Bay Area in 1983. Tenzing was studying at UC Berkeley’s Grad School of Journalism and I came to do an MFA in Film and Video at California College of Arts. We were both serious movie buffs and used to spend all our free time watching movies. There were great repertory theatres in the Bay Area then. We ended up doing a joint thesis project, which was a documentary called The New Puritans: The Sikhs of Yuba City. It was around this time that we got involved with NAATA, the earlier incarnation of CAAM. NAATA helped us get the film on national PBS and the film is still distributed by CAAM. So it’s been a very long association.

RC: Your work has primarily involved Tibet. Could you each say a bit about your personal connection to Tibet and the Tibetan cause?

Tenzing: My connection is straightforward: I was born in India to Tibetan refugee parents and grew up as part of the Tibetan community in exile. The issue of Tibet has been a lifelong commitment so it’s not surprising that so much of our work has focused on Tibetan subjects.

Ritu: Even before I met Tenzing, I had a unusual connection to Tibet. I had a relative who was a Tibetan Buddhist nun. Also, my father’s ancestral home was in Dharamsala and is today the site of the Tibetan Medical Centre! But of course, I became much more involved in the Tibetan cause after I started working with Tenzing.

RC: How has your film work influenced, deepened or changed your views about Tibet, China and the rest of the world? I’m curious as well about how being documentarians/filmmakers and also advocates works together—are there conflicts that come up as you construct your narratives?

Tenzing: Through our films, we’ve explored, documented, and reflected on Tibetan issues and subjects for nearly thirty years so, in a sense, we’ve grown up with the changes that have taken place, culturally and politically, within the Tibetan exile community. We’ve experienced firsthand the highs and lows of the Tibetan movement, both personally and through our work. I think our film work has helped us gain a sharper insight into these changes. During this period, we’ve witnessed the growing global power of China and its increasing aggressiveness in challenging and attempting to suppress any views about Tibet that are contrary to its own. For example, when our film, The Sun Behind the Clouds was screening at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival, Chinese officials from the Consulate in LA tried to pressure the director of the festival in removing our film. When he refused, two Chinese films that were in the programme were abruptly pulled out. This is only one overt example of how China tries to control the global discourse on Tibet. This realisation has made us even more committed to trying to spread the message of what’s happening in Tibet.

Ritu: I don’t think there’s any conflict between our roles as filmmakers and our political activism. Our films are about characters and subjects that we are deeply engaged with, so, through them we are able to tell the larger stories. Since we are part of the community we are also aware of a lot of layers and underlying issues. We try to bring these into our films but there is always the danger that this could also overload a viewer who is not familiar with the subject. So there is a lot of juggling involved during the edit to find the right balance.

RC: I loved watching two of your films again this week, but was especially struck by DREAMING LHASA. This film deepens every time I see it. Can you tell us about the origins of this film and the decision to make a feature instead of your prior work in documentaries? Personally, I think it’s so powerful because it brings the viewer right into the lives of people affected by exile and diaspora. We really feel the emotions of displacement quite deeply, and also the power of human connection. Do you plan to make any more features (please, pretty please!!!)

Ritu: Tenzing and I have been deeply influenced by dramatic feature films and have always wanted to make one ourselves. But, having started our careers as documentary filmmakers, we had to struggle for many years to establish ourselves in this field and so it was difficult to carve out the time and space to make a dramatic feature. As you can imagine, the whole process of making a feature is very different from a documentary and we had to be certain that we could pull it off before embarking on one. Tenzing had been working on a script for many years and when he finally finished it, we decided the time had come to give it a shot.

Tenzing: I think the great thing about fiction is that it allows you to be in control of your narrative, so you can tailor make it to address very specific issues. When you make a documentary, you start out with an idea or a character, but unless you are making a fully scripted film, you are at the mercy of events and situations as they happen. This, of course, is the wonderful thing about documentaries…that you’re following life as it is unfolding. But fiction opens up another whole world and I was very keen to explore some of the concerns we’ve always had—exile, identity, etc.— in a fictional setting. That said, Dreaming Lhasa has a documentary feel to it so perhaps, we were not able to totally shake off our documentary background.

Ritu: When we made Dreaming Lhasa, we learned so much about making a feature and were very keen to immediately make another feature. However, before we knew it, we were sucked up in more documentary projects and time just passed. But through this period, Tenzing has been working on a number of different feature ideas and has now finally finished writing a script for one of them. The film is called The Sweet Requiem and is once again set in the exile Tibetan community in India. We are just starting to fund-raise and hopefully, if all goes well, we will be in production next spring.

RC: Where did you get the name “White Crane Films”?

Tenzing: White Crane refers to a famous song written by the 6th Dalai Lama, who was a kind of rebel Dalai Lama, a poet and a lover of the good life! The song goes:

White Crane! Lend me your wings.

I will not go far. 

Only to Lithang, and then I will return. 

The song was composed when the 6th Dalai Lama was sent into exile for his worldly ways. He mysteriously died during the journey but a few years later, his reincarnation was discovered in the town of Lithang, which kind of proved that he had been a genuine Dalai Lama. White Cranes are also regarded as auspicious creatures in Tibet and have always been an inspiration for artists and musicians. For both these reasons, we thought it was an appropriate name for our company.

RC: What are you working on next? Perhaps you can say a bit about your video installation works as well.

Ritu: As I mentioned, our next project is a dramatic feature. Over the years, we’ve also been doing some video installations. This has been an interesting shift in our approach to filmmaking. Films made for an art context offer a whole new possibility of telling stories or exploring ideas. In some ways, there is greater freedom and the potential to experiment with the form itself. We find this exciting and hope to continue making video installations. At the end of the day, however, we don’t find a contradiction or a problem with working in these different genres. For us they are all a part of our filmmaking practice.

RC: Thank you so much!

Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a San Francisco psychiatrist and writer.  He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today.  You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter here, and find out about his upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks.  Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein says “I think it will be inspiring to many, many people.”  More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.