“Dreaming Lhasa,” reviewed by Jennifer Merin

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In their first feature, “Dreaming Lhasa,“ documentary filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam draw upon their personal experiences, observations and imaginings to create a compelling and complex tale of Tibetans in exile.

The film is set in Dharamsala, the northern Indian city where the Dalai Lama (appearing briefly in the film as his limo passes a crowd of waiting worshippers) has established the Tibetan government in exile. Karma (Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso), a NY-filmmaker there to record stories of poltical refugees who’ve escaped China-occupied Tibet, becomes emotionally involved with one of her subjects, Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang), who’d promised his dying mother he’d deliver a precious charm box to a man named Loga (Phuntsok Namgyal Dhumkhang), a Tibetan monk and resistance fighter who’d disappeared years ago.

Both Ritu and Tenzing were born in northern India, both are US film school grads whose work has been supported by Richard Gere, an executive producer of “Dreaming Lhasa.”

While making a BBC-backed doc about the CIA’s backing of the Tibetan resistance, Ritu and Tenzing heard of a CIA-trained Tibetan fighter who’d vanished. Musings about what happened to him lead to “Dreaming Lhasa‘s” plot, with characters based on actual refugees. The cast is a composite of actors and non-actors, some of whom are prominent members of the Tibetan refugee community, and others of whom are former documentary interviewees who play themselves.

For Westerners, even those knowledgeable about the Tibetan diaspora, the film opens wide a window into another culture and its values, and of the cultural identity crisis befalling a young generation of Tibetans who‘ve never seen their ancestral homeland and, as dying elders take traditional ways and memories with them, are increasingly removed from the reality of a free Tibet.

If, as products of a ’melting pot’ society built on the notion– real or unreal, right or wrong– of success through assimilation, we find it difficult to identify with the heartbreaking yearning exiled Tibetans feel for their homeland, individual stories told in “Dreaming Lhasa” compel us to compassion.

Dhondup’s quest to fulfill his mother’s last wish by delivering a treasure has familiar resonance– we’ve embraced similar missions in films as divergent as “Lord of the Rings” and “Children of Men.“ But, “Dreaming Lhasa‘s“ hero’s actions seem motivated by a need to fulfill traditional obligations, rather than prevent earthly doom. And his task is carried out without attendant sturm und drang– or, for that matter, much conflict or personal danger. When Dhondup hears Loga might be in Delhi, he and Karma go to Delhi. When they’re told Loga’s a hermit in the hills, they head for the hills. Still, the story commands attention because of the characters’ inner tensions. This, too, sets “Dreaming Lhasa” apart as a mind-expanding experience.

Location-wise, the film’s a fascinating travelogue. Perhaps it’s their documentary background that makes Ritu and Tenzing expert in taking you into real environments– the streets of Dharamsala, shops of Delhi, mountain towns and temples– to further glimpse Tibetan culture in exile.

Noteworthy, too, is the fact that the Chinese government of Tibet has taken steps to repress “Dreaming Lhasa.”

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).