Lhasa’s rough edges don’t detract from the story of Tibetan exiles

There’s always something compelling about someone who isn’t there. The most effective characters in movies are often the ones who are spoken of without being heard from whose presence overshadows the story without ever appearing on the screen. In Dreaming Lhasa that character is Tibet. The film is set in northern India bringing a group of Tibetan exiles together with a mysterious loner who has crossed the border to get their help. While the movie is rough around the edges largely owing to its novice cast the themes of loss and identity keep it interesting and balance its limitations. The movie opens in Dharamasala India where Dhondup a political dissident with a young family has just arrived from Tibet carrying a memento that his dying mother has told him to give to an exile named Loga. He enlists the help of Karma a Tibetan-American making a documentary about the Chinese occupation of the native country she has never visited. Together with Jigme a second-generation exile who wears designer jeans and plays in a rock band the two try to track Loga embarking on a trek that takes them through India’s numerous Tibetan exile communities and into the history of the country. As the film progresses an image of Tibet is pieced together through the recollections of exiles who have lived there. This is contrasted with the lives of the many characters who have grown up in exile but continue to identify with a country they have never known. Unable to find enough professional actors directors Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam recruited a cast that for the most part had no acting experience. This shows in the film as the acting is sometimes sloppy and unconvincing. The script is strong however and the film is at its best when the acting is understated and the characters allow the film’s themes to come through on their own. In particular Jampa Kalsang (Dhondup) is subtle and quiet making every line prescient. We get the sense that his character is willing to allow something greater — whether it’s fate duty or the weight of history — to eclipse him. Despite its problems Dreaming Lhasa is worth seeing. In a world where art tends to focus on the self it’s a breath of fresh air to watch a film that relegates the self to second place behind society history and the country that overshadows every other character.