Article Tibet

Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam's The Sweet Requiem gets a full house at DIFF

Set amongst the exile Tibetan community in India, The Sweet Requiem is a deeply personal and moving drama.

Sahil Bhalla

Filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam had their homecoming at the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) when their second narrative feature, The Sweet Requiem, had its Asian premiere.

After three sold-out shows at the Toronto International Film Festival, the screening at DIFF was no different. Set amongst the exile Tibetan community in India, The Sweet Requiem is a deeply personal and moving drama.

Chinese border guards had fired on a group of people back in 2006 as they were crossing the Tibet-Nepal border at Nangpa La pass. A Buddhist nun was killed in the fire and that was the starting point for the script of The Sweet Requiem.

Like many other films at this year’s edition of DIFF, The Sweet Requiem has some fascinating footage (in this case of the Himalayas) that take away from the narrative at certain points during the 91-minute run-time. The film flashes back and forth between two distinct narrative threads.

We are introduced to the focal character Dolkar (an impressive debut by Tenzin Dolker) during her 26th birthday party celebrations. Everything isn’t rosy. The celebrations are coloured with a little bit of sadness. After all, she’s many years removed from leaving Tibet on a treacherous mountain trek accompanied by her father. Dolkar is made to confront her past when a stranger, pursued by two Chinese intelligence agents, arrives in Delhi.

Her best friend Dorjee (Shavo Dorjee) is an activist working at a Tibetan social services centre. Dorjee begins to assist Gompo (Jampa Kalsang), a recently arrived refugee whom Dolkar immediately and unexpectedly recognises. Gompo is the mountain guide that abandoned her group of refugees near the border crossing.

The film takes us through Dolkar’s journey to unmask Gompo. It’s a personal ride through the emotions of a 20-year-old as her experiences shape her actions. Believing that Gompo’s abandonment led to her father’s death, this is a tale of justice and of retribution. Gompo may have had his reasons for abandoning the group of refugees (his own ill daughter in Lhasa), but to Dolkar, that doesn’t matter one bit.

It is these threats that unite the two main characters, despite many personal differences. Jampa Kalsang is at his best during the treacherous trek, with all his raw emotions, revealing the unease that he feels in the situation. Tenzin Dolker is at her best when she is quietly following Gompo around the Tibetan exile community. It reveals a quiet rage that we don’t often get to see throughout the film.

When the two meet, all that emotion and seriousness of the situation is lost, upon the viewer. There just isn’t much chemistry between the two of them and for the viewer, the build-up is all for nought.

The scenes depicting the harsh journey that the Tibetan’s have to go through (shot in Ladakh) serve as a reminder as to just how far the refugees’ homeland is. That, in itself, is a tale worth being told.

The Sweet Requiem is a personal tale that deserves to travel from one festival to another. The viewer may be left wanting more insights into the Tibetan independence movement or even just a little more on their lives in Delhi, but on the surface level, The Sweet Requiem works. Diving a little deeper would have allowed the audiences to learn a little bit more about the movement and be more involved with the subject matter.

A lot of the film is inspired from real life and the killing of the Buddhist nun, captured on video by a Romanian mountaineer, is what propelled Ritu Sarin and Tenzin Sonam to make their second narrative feature. The backdrop of Manju-ka-tilla was chosen as they had both visited the area a lot and to them, it just seemed kind of right to them.

The duo didn’t want the film to be in-your-face with its political message and for it to work on a more universal level, they let the story unfold as a thriller.

The Sweet Requiem was screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival on 4 November.

Related topics

Dharamshala International Film Festival