“We Tibetans are funny,” says artist Tenzing Rigdol near the beginning of Tenzin Tsetan Choklay’s documentary Bringing Tibet Home. “When people ask ‘are you Chinese?’ you feel unhappy, but when people ask ‘are you Japanese?’, you feel great”. Cultural identity is the driving force behind the artist’s work, and Choklay’s film documents the creation of his biggest piece yet: Our Land, Our People, an installation intended to give the thousands of Tibetans living in exile in India the chance to feel connected to their homeland once again by literally being able to walk on Tibetan soil. Tenzing Rigdol’s father, a Tibetan refugee, died in exile, his unfulfilled dying wish to step foot on his homeland, the impetus for this project.
Echoing the route his mother and father took when they fled the country, Rigdol took 20 tons of soil from Tibet, transported it through Nepal into India and used it to cover a stage, inviting Tibetan refugees to walk across it. Of course, this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, with the project delayed by, among other things, government bureaucracy, money problems and the constant scrutiny of the Chinese, who seem to do everything in their power to stifle Tibetan culture.
Choklay presents this struggle as an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist, cutting between fly-on-the-wall conversations in which Rigdol and his collaborators go over their plan to smuggle the soil out of Tibet in exhaustive detail, and shots of the group making the plan a reality, including one of them being accosted by Chinese police officers during a visit to the Nepal-Tibet border, forcing them to delete the photos they’ve taken of the surrounding scenery – all captured on video by hidden cameras concealed in pens in their pockets.
Politically, this “us versus the world” approach only makes their message stronger, presenting these tense situations as a microcosm of China’s power over the Tibetan people, but Choklay overplays this opposition, turning even mundane interactions into proof that everyone is out to get them. One meeting with Rigdol, his friend Topten and the “fixer”, the guy in charge of transporting the soil across the border, is also shot with hidden cameras in case he’s “a Chinese spy”. The meeting is going fine, and eventually we find out that the guy can be trusted (even if he keeps asking for more money), but when Choklay uses the subtitle “[speaking in Chinese]” as the man talks to his partner on the phone, it feels as if he’s grasping at straws, trying everything to force home a point he has already made.
But even as this exaggerated sense of paranoia threatens to overshadow the film, the completed installation is unveiled, and its impact is impossible to deny. Thousands of people, young and old, queue for days to walk on the Tibetan soil, and Choklay, bar the inevitable use of a rousing score, simply observes the emotion of the occasion. “I was able to touch this soil today,” one young girl says into the microphone set up on stage, through a stream of tears. “I feel like I am back in my homeland.” – a rare moment of touching sincerity in what felt like an otherwise over-done film.
Released on Friday 12th December