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“To see with compassion”: Filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam talk about their stunning latest ‘The Sweet Requiem’

American president FDR famously said “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” And if there is one film that proves that quote more than any other this year, it's Ritu Sarin's and Tenzing Sonam's 'The Sweet Requiem'. A feat of wonder and overcoming the impossible both in front as well as behind the camera, this work of art quickly conquered a well-deserved place inside my heart, and my thoughts.

Tenzin Dolker in 'The  Sweet Requiem' directed by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam of White Crane Films, photo by Pablo Bartholomew
Tenzin Dolker in 'The Sweet Requiem' directed by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam of White Crane Films, photo by Pablo Bartholomew

So what makes ‘The Sweet Requiem’ so wonderfully important? It is a film at once intimate and grandiose. It features a tireless female heroine who is played flawlessly by a first time actor. And it highlights the plight of Tibetan refugees who, more than seventy years after China first invaded their country, still live scattered around the world in exile. If life is a perilous journey, no other people have proven an example of grace under fire like the Tibetans have.

Today, we are faced with an unprecedented number of people displaced from their homelands and rearranged in foreign countries around the world. Yet instead of fixing the problem at its core, governments prefer to help them flee and with their necessary escape, part of each culture is lost. Perhaps it’s a way to reorganize us and make us homogenous. Or just oversight towards those countries where the big powers don’t see immediate gain. Whatever the reason, fact is that Tibetans continue to live and thrive anywhere but Tibet. That is a sad reality. Something to ponder collectively and try to find a solution to.

At the center of ‘The Sweet Requiem’ stands Dolkar played by the beautiful Tenzin Dolker in her acting debut. She is a 26-year-old living in exile in Delhi. She is active, modern and independent. One day, she notices in her neighborhood a figure from her past which sets off a flurry of memories she had long repressed, regarding the journey that brought her to India from Tibet. Dolkar was only eight when she and her father left their Tibetan home, their family and all they knew in a desperate attempt to start anew in a safer land. As memories of what became a disastrous expedition take shape, Dolkar resolves to confront the man she believes responsible. Traveling back and forward between the past and the present, between majestic scenes on the Himalayan mountain passes and intimate moments in the everyday life of Dolkar in Delhi, ‘The Sweet Requiem’ manages to keep the viewer spellbound, every step of the way.

I caught up with the filmmakers — a couple in real life as well as for the movies — by email and asked them about their grueling shoot dealing with both the snow and the hot Delhi summer, the watering down of the word “Karma” in the western world and what they wish viewers will take away from their film.

‘The Sweet Requiem’ opens at the IFC Center in NYC on July 12th.

I read about the grueling shoots in both the Himalayan region and later in Delhi, due to extreme temperatures. What are the true hurdles of such diverse shoots and how were you able to overcome them?

Filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam

Ritu Sarin: We needed to shoot in the high Himalayas to replicate the escape route taken by Tibetan refugees and the closest place to Tibet that we could shoot in was Ladakh in northern India. We also wanted snow without having to go really high. We were lucky that when we went to shoot at the end of March 2017, we had fresh snowfall, which was unusual as the region has been experiencing less and less snowfall over the years due to climate change. In any case, we still had to shoot at altitudes of around 15,000 feet to get the kind of snowscape we wanted. We drove two hours every day to the location from our base in Leh, which is itself at 12,000 feet and we often had to work in sub-zero temperatures. Ensuring everyone’s safety was a top priority and we acclimatized for a couple days before slowly moving to higher altitudes. But it was still tough on some of the crew who were not used to the altitude and a couple of them left the shoot because of breathing problems. Because we were operating on a micro budget, we didn’t have the luxury of proper mountaineering gear and support systems, but we were a small, close-knit cast and crew, and we became very close during the shoot, and I think this sense of camaraderie helped us overcome the physical challenges.

Immediately after Ladakh, we were plunged into the heat of the Delhi summer! Tenzing had specifically set the Delhi sequence in summertime to create a sharp contrast in landscape, mood and setting. We worked in small cramped spaces in 115° F temperatures. At one point our camera, the usually reliable Arri Alexa simply shut down. We had to cool it down with electric fans before it started again! Shooting verite style in the streets of Delhi also presented immense logistical challenges, like controlling bystanders and curious passersby, and orchestrating crowds in tiny locations.

I think all of us working on the film knew that these extreme conditions were important to create an authentic environment for the story, and everyone just put their heads down and uncomplainingly did their best.

I read in your press kit that the spark of the idea for your film came from the viral video of a Tibetan nun shot at the border by Chinese soldiers. Yet the film, to me, shies away from truly being political, aiming instead for the human nature aspects. Did you always know you would make a very human film or were you ever tempted to go more aggressive and political?

Tenzing Sonam: Although the initial inspiration for the film came from the incident you speak about, the video footage of a cold-blooded shooting on Nangpa La pass where Chinese border guards shot dead a 16-year-old nun, it was always clear that the film would have to tell a personalized and human story. Ritu and I have always been interested, not so much in large histories as on the concrete impacts of historical processes on the lives of individuals and communities. In this case, we were especially interested in the thousands of children who were sent from Tibet to India by their families in the 1990s and 2000s to receive a Tibetan education in one of the refugee schools set up by the Dalai Lama’s exile administration, many of whom had made similar treks across the Himalayas. The tragic irony of their situation was that the majority never returned to Tibet and often lost contact with their families. What happened to these kids when they grew up? What traumas and unresolved sufferings did they carry with them? By telling their story at a human level, we hoped it would not only touch upon the specific political context of Tibet but also become more universally relevant.

How does your documentary background help in telling a story such as this one?

Sarin: It helps a lot in many ways. We are used to researching stories and interviewing people and this was very important in preparing an authentic setting for our film. Most of our documentaries have told personal stories and although ‘The Sweet Requiem’ was a fictional film, we approached it very much like a documentary film, incorporating actual events, locations and settings. We shot the film mostly handheld, which also added to the documentary feeling. 

Your actors are a casting coup! How did you find your leading lady, and can you talk about your longtime association with the man who plays Gompo?

Jampa Kalsang, photo by Pablo Bartholomew

Sarin: There is no exile Tibetan filmmaking industry and hence no professional actors. Jampa Kalsang, who acts as Gompo, is the closest we have to a professional actor, having worked in a number of films, including our first narrative feature, ‘Dreaming Lhasa’. In fact, when Tenzing was writing the script, he had Jampa specifically in mind for the role of Gompo. In real life, Jampa is a playful, fun-loving guy whom plays a mean blues guitar! But when he acts in a movie, he enters a Zen-like space of total focus and is a huge inspiration to his fellow actors.

We knew that the key to the film would be to find the right person to play Dolkar, and that if we didn’t find her, we wouldn’t be able to make the film. So, even before we had raised the money to make the film, we set out to find Dolkar. We sent out a casting call on the Tibetan social media networks and received many applications. But when Tenzin Dolker applied with a short video clip, we knew we had found the right person. Dolker is unusual for a young exile Tibetan woman in that she is a dancer and a photographer in real life. Although she had never acted, she was a natural performer and slipped into role instinctively. We did arrange for her to have a short acting workshop but in the end, she completely grew into her character.

A few times, I noticed the idea of karma come up in your film. The most stunning moment is in the letter Gompo writes to Dolkar where he believes his daughter died as a result of his own bad karma. In the west, we tend to overuse the word, allowing it to lose its true meaning. Do you personally believe in karma and what does it mean to you?

Sonam: Yes, the word ‘karma’ is often misused and overused in a Western context, where it has come to mean something like fate or destiny. But in a Tibetan context, karma has a much deeper meaning and informs everything we do in life. Tibetans especially believe that all events occur due to a concatenation of many causes and effects; that whatever happens to us now is dictated by our past actions, whether in this life or in a previous one. Hence, we are directly responsible for the consequences of our actions. This is a more dynamic condition of living and quite unlike the way the word karma is used in a Western context, where it is more fatalistic and devoid of personal agency. This notion of karma is an integral aspect of ‘The Sweet Requiem’, both in the sense of the unexpected consequences of the choices we make, and the need for forgiveness in order to move on with life. The belief in karma in its essential Buddhist sense is one that informs our personal lives and one that we always try to be mindful of. 

I loved the Western film genre feeling that your DoP added to the mountain scenes. How did you decide to work with David McFarland?

Sonam: We were very clear that we wanted the film to look and feel contemporary. We wanted to move away from the preconception that Tibetan films are somehow spiritual or Buddhist and hence esoteric and otherworldly. We wanted a hard edge to the film, which is why we introduced a noir-ish element to the Delhi scenes. We also needed a DoP who would understand this and at the same time be flexible enough to work under difficult circumstances with very little support. David was introduced to us by our New York-based producing partner Shrihari Sathe and we hit it off on our very first Skype conversation. David loved the script and immediately got what we were hoping to achieve. He was also keen to do something very different from his usual work and that was the beginning of a very rewarding collaboration. 

And finally, what would you like an audience member to walk away with, after watching your film? 

Sarin: To see with compassion, the plight of refugees, the anguish of being separated from one’s homeland. And to remind people that the situation in Tibet is urgent and needs international attention and support.

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