Director Ritu Sarin on challenges and triumphs of representing Tibet in Cinema

Director Ritu Sarin has spent most of her career sharing stories of the Tibetan diaspora, from the 2010 documentary The Sun Behind the Clouds, which focuses on the 2008 uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet, to the drama Dreaming Lhasa, about a New York-based Tibetan filmmaker who embarks on an unpredictable and ultimately dangerous journey to rediscover her roots.  This summer, Sarin’s debuted her latest feature, The Sweet Requiem (co-directed by her filmmaking partner and husband Tenzing Sonam, himself the child of Tibetan refugees). The compelling drama follows Dolkar (Tenzin Dolker), a vibrant young Tibetan refugee living and working in Delhi, India. As Dolkar builds a life for herself , she’s haunted by memories of the harrowing trek she took through the Himalayas to escape Chinese-occupied Tibet as a child—a journey that came with immense costs—and the many unanswered questions that linger in its aftermath. Here, Sarin discusses the genesis of The Sweet Requiem, the challenges of getting the film produced, and the bright future of Tibetan cinema.

Rachel Mosely: You and Tenzing are known more for documentaries than narrative films. Why did you decide to do a narrative on this subject?
Ritu Sarin: We talked about doing a documentary, but there were so many different threads and stories we wanted to weave together. It’s dealing with the past but also the present. We felt like that was going to be very hard to do in a documentary. We realized quickly that a doc was not the way to go because if we were actually following people from Tibet to Nepal, that would be very difficult for them and possibly making their situation dangerous. We are very careful about documentary work—we try to be ethical and not endanger anybody’s lives. Filmmakers sometimes do that—they forget that they’re working in areas where the political situation is bad, and it can actually be dangerous for people on the ground.
Rachel Mosely: What were some of the toughest moments of the shoot?
Ritu Sarin: The way the script was written meant we were going to go from extreme cold to extreme, unbelievable heat. That was hard on everybody. There’s a shot in the film, during their journey [through the Himalayas], where they’re sleeping next to a big rock. That was one of the hardest scenes because we were so worried that the actors were too cold. We had to take many shots and do a lot of retakes. We just had a plastic sheet down there and a blanket, but nothing more high-tech than that. The actors never complained. Not once. I think that just showed how much they were within the story, because they are Tibetans. They know this story. I think for them to bring it to the larger world—to feel like they’re in some way contributing—that kept everybody going. I think that’s the positive side of all of this, because it was a small, dedicated team, and the actors were nonprofessionals. Everyone really cared about the film, and they were close-knit. You hear stories of people on shoots fighting with each other—we really had nothing like that happen. Everyone was there for the film, and that felt really good.

Dolkar and her family members make the treacherous journey across the Himalayas.

Rachel Mosely: What were the biggest hurdles you had to face in getting the film made?
Ritu Sarin: One, we were working with nonprofessionals. We were aware that Dolkar had to carry the story. She’s so key, so very early on—even before we got the film fully funded—we actually did a casting call for the Dolkar character. Once we found this Dolkar and we were so happy with her, then we felt like we could go on with the project. Fundraising was a killer because it took us over two years. Some of the people we had selected, like the young Dolkar, were too old by the time we were ready to start filming. We had to re-audition for those characters because people’s lives had changed and they had grown up.
Rachel Mosely: Speaking of Dolkar, the action obviously centers on her. And the portrayal of her is definitely not a one-dimensional portrayal of the refugee as this powerless person—I feel like a lot of foreign perspectives tend to have that stereotype. When you were imagining Dolkar, how did you envision her in terms of her personality? And why was that personality the type that you felt was necessary to tell this story?
Ritu Sarin: We struggled with that a lot of because obviously, it’s very easy to think of your person as a kind of victim. They had a trauma, and they’re dealing with that trauma. But as the script got refined, we started giving her more and more agency. That became very important for us. While we honed the script that aspect of Dolkar really came into being.

Dolkar’s mother and sister watch as Dolkar and her father set off towards India.

Rachel Mosely: You and Tenzing have mentioned that recently, you’ve seen the beginnings of a Tibetan film culture emerging. What excites you about the future of that industry?
Ritu Sarin: I don’t think we can’t really call it an industry, because it’s very homegrown. There’s just not enough there for it to be called an industry yet. But there’s really a lot of artists and creative people who are interested in the medium. There’s a lot more people acting now and wanting to act, but there are limited roles. And of course, there are many more filmmakers. A lot of them have worked with us on our last two or three films, then they’ve gone on to make their own documentaries or short films. The stories are largely about loss, or about looking for something—looking for identity, looking for people. We’re all looking for something. What’s happened very recently is that this small community centered around Dharamshala, India, where we live, they really support each other. Recently, a short film was made by our associate director on The Sweet Requiem. Our assistant cameraman and another person has worked with us on a previous film—they all worked together for nothing, for free, to support his film. I think it’s really, really exciting because there’s enough people to engage and to help. In the end, one needs so much help to make a film. It’s not something you do on your own.

Stills courtesy of The Sweet Requiem

Tags: Ritu Sarin, The Sweet Requiem

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