Co-directors Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam‘s “Dreaming Lhasa” is the story of a young woman who has grown up in New York and returns to her roots in McLeod Gunj, Dharamsala, home of the exiled Dalai Lama, to make a film about India’s Tibetan community. Along with her assistant, a disaffected local youth, she meets an ex-monk who has escaped political imprisonment. Their journey into Tibets’ fractured past becomes the young woman’s own voyage of self-discovery. “Dreaming Lhasa” screened at the 2005 Toronto Interntional Film Festival as well as the 2006 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. First Run Features will open the film Friday, April 13 in limited release.
Please introduce yourselves…
Tenzing Sonam: I’m Tibetan born and brought up in exile in India. My partner, Ritu, is Indian. We’re currently based in New Delhi, although we lived for many years in the US and then in London. We’re married, have two kids, and have been making films together for almost 25 years. We were both students in the Bay Area in the early ’80s, Ritu earning her Masters in Film and Video at the California College of the Arts and me at UC Berkeley‘s Grad School of Journalism. We were both serious film buffs and spent most of our student days (and nights) hanging out in the Bay Area repertory cinemas. We started out by making a student film–a documentary about the Sikh community in Northern California–which won a few awards and was eventually broadcast on PBS. We moved to London in the late ’80s and set up our own company, White Crane Films, and made a number of documentaries, mostly on Tibetan subjects–some of which were commissioned by the BBC. Although we were very much involved in documentaries, our interest in dramatic features was always very strong, and we always wanted to make one ourselves. It took us a long time, but with “Dreaming Lhasa,” we finally made this dream come true.
Ritu Sarin: As a teenager, I was living with my family in London. I think I was 14 when I discovered the Everyman Theatre near our home. This was one of the crucial repertory theatres in London at the time. I would just go there on my own and watch films. Among others, I discovered Bergman there. I was completely blown away by the sheer force of cinema and its potential to communicate, while able to transcend boundaries, whether ethnicity or gender.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
TS: We certainly want to go further with dramatic features, and in fact, are developing a new idea at the moment. We learned a lot while making “Dreaming Lhasa,” and we feel this experience will help us with our next feature. At the moment, we’re involved in another project that is taking us in a completely new direction: We’ve been commissioned by TB-A21 Art Contemporary, an art foundation in Vienna, to create a video art installation, and we’re very excited by the challenge of working in this new medium. I think there’s still so much more to explore and learn.
RS: There remains so much more we would like to do on the creative side–working within documentary, fiction and art, and continuing to explore the relationships between them.
Please talk about how the idea for this film came about.
TS/RS: In 1996, we moved back to India from London and based ourselves in Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. Part of the reason for moving here was to reconnect with the Tibetan exile world and to think about a feature film that would convey the contemporary reality of Tibet. Living in the West for so many years made us realize that there was a lot misconception about Tibet, particularly its image as a kind of Shangri-La. We understood that this was fuelled partly because although there was a lot of material available about Tibet, very little had actually been generated by Tibetans themselves. We felt that there was a pressing need for Tibetans to start telling their own stories and we wanted to make a feature film that would explore the issues of identity, exile and political aspiration.
The actual germ of the idea for “Dreaming Lhasa” came about while we were working on a BBC-funded documentary film about the CIA’s involvement in the Tibetan resistance. We heard the story of how, after the end of the armed movement, one of the CIA-trained resistance fighters had suddenly disappeared without a trace and was never seen again. Thinking about his mysterious fate led to the framework of the story on which “Dreaming Lhasa” evolved.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film as well as your overall goals for the project.
TS/RS: Coming from a documentary background, authenticity and honesty in the way we tell a story is very important to us. This doesn’t mean that our approach has to be literal; but we do need to believe in the subject we are exploring and we need to always question whether we are being true to it or not. Our overall goal for this film is to reach out to as many people as we can. We really feel that the message of Tibet needs to be heard across the world, and hopefully, this film is one small way in realizing that goal.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project?
RS: It was our first feature, so the entire process was new to us. Of course, having a documentary background did help, as did our familiarity with the subject matter and locations. However, we were working in a bit of a void as there is nothing that comes even close to a Tibetan film industry, and we had to put everything together within a very limited budget. Also, there is no real market within the Tibetan community to support a film, so the financing had to come from outside. After Tenzing wrote the script, it took us many years to get the money. Initially, with [producer] Jeremy Thomas’s help, we tried to get money from film companies. We had a few meetings, but when it came down to it, no one wanted to take the risk. We were unknown directors, and not only were there no known stars in our film, they were all non-professionals. We finally managed to get some seed money from Richard Gere, and this helped us get small investments from friends, supporters and family. After the shoot, we managed to raise the rest of the budget from Raj Singh, a California-based entrepreneur who had started a film company, Laxmi Studios.
How did the casting for the film come together?
RS: Since there are no real Tibetan film actors, we had to work with non-professionals. Only Jampa Kalsang, who plays Dhondup, had some acting experience. One of the main challenges was to find the character of Karma, the New York Tibetan. We thought it would be easiest if we could find a Tibetan-American for the role, pretty much playing herself. So, our options were very limited. We put a casting call out on Tibet-related websites and received a few applications. Then, a friend of ours went and did auditions with the best of those candidates. Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso, who finally got the role of Karma, works in a bank near Washington, D.C. She took a few months off and came to India to play the role. In the case of Dhondup, we were already aware of his past work. A friend auditioned him for us and we decided he was the best suited. For Jigme’s role, we had hundreds of applicants. We spent a few days auditioning them. As it so happened, we had known Tenzin Jigme, the guy who finally got the role, for years and he kept telling us that he could do it, to just give him a chance.
Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
TS: Before I got involved in filmmaking, my strongest creative influences were all literary, and I aspired to be a writer myself. Kerouac, Pablo Neruda and Henry Miller were my heroes. Even today, one of my strongest inspirations comes from the Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami. In cinema, earlier on, I was heavily influenced by the films of Fellini, Tarkovsky, Satyajit Ray, Welles and Wenders, to mention a few. More recently, I have been very impressed by the films of Wong Kar Wai, Pedro Almodovar and Park Chan-Wook.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
TS/RS: I think it would be interesting to make a kind of modern supernatural thriller…a contemporary ghost story, perhaps. Our next project is a video art installation on the topic of Tibetan Buddhist debate. After that, we plan to work on another feature film, which we are currently developing.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
TS/RS: The definition of “independent film” lies in the word “independent,” i.e. a film where the director has total freedom to do what he or she wants. Along with this is the fact that such films are by necessity, low budget. I also associate “independent films” with the never-ending problem of finding financing and the equally difficult task of getting distribution. And no, none of these have changed since we first started making films.
What are some of your all-time favorite films?
TS: Fellini’s “8 1/2” is one of my all-time favorites. I think Fellini was a truly humanistic and compassionate filmmaker and in this film, he captured movingly and profoundly the dilemmas and conflicts of striving to be an artist. I love all of Tarkovsky’s films, but most especially, “Stalker.” I think his influence on cinema has been immense, to the extent that even filmmakers of the MTV generation who may have never seen his films are unconsciously indebted to his style and vision. The early movies of Wim Wenders, were a major influence. I think they captured that sense of exile, restlessness and constant movement between cultures that I could identify with myself.
RS: Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu Monagatori,” Renoir’s “Rules of the Game,” to name a few. Recently, Michael Haneke’s “Cache,” Almodovar’s “Volver” and Innaritu’s “Babel.”
What are your interests outside of film?
TS: Reading and listening to music. I love music–dub reggae, jazz, electronica, world, indy guitar bands–and derive a lot of pleasure and inspiration from this. That’s one reason why “Dreaming Lhasa” has an eclectic collection of music, all the way from dub reggae, Underworld and the Cowboy Junkies to old Bollywood songs and traditional Tibetan music. Our music director, Andy Spence, is currently the guitar player for the up-and-coming British band, New Young Pony Club. But besides these personal interests, I am completely devoted to doing my bit to further the Tibetan cause. I try and keep abreast of developments inside Tibet and also reflect and write about the situation as much as I can.
RS: I have always loved traveling and now that we are a family, when there is no school and we can take some time off, we have many adventures on the road with our two kids! Long road journeys, treks, gatherings with friends. Like Tenzing, the Tibetan cause is also one my overriding concerns.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
TS/RS: Keep true to your vision, be honest in your work, and be prepared to struggle long and hard with very little hope of any reward other than the immense satisfaction of having overcome all odds to realize your dream!
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud…
TS/RS: Screening “Dreaming Lhasa” at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley as part of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival last year was a particularly significant moment for us as this was the place where we had watched so many films as students and first hatched the dream of becoming filmmakers.