Marxist theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously asked if the subaltern could speak. The answer was something like: Even if she can, how are we listening? So, can the subaltern, at least, sing? According to Tibet in Song, an essay film about the filmmaker’s search for the dying art of Tibetan traditional music, the answer is a deadly no.
The business of cultural erasure through music gains literal status and gruesome consequences in Ngawang Choephel’s documentary, as he returns to Tibet after years in exile only to find a nation indoctrinated, through coercion and horrific violence, by Chinese pop and propaganda music. The émigré‘s homecoming is never without unfound memories, but this is the kind of tragedy that goes way beyond expatriate melancholia.
While Camille Paglia and Jack Halberstam engage in a cerebral war of words online over whether Lady Gaga represents the end of the sexual revolution, Choephel is haunted by more urgent concerns in Tibet in Song, though concerns that also revolve around cultural revolutions and musical brainwashing posing as community-building.
One may wonder what “the first major star of the digital age,” as Paglia puts it, has to do with a film about the Chinese occupation of Tibet. But Choephel’s film is one of those precious cinematic feats in which the filmmaker zeros in so close to his own broken body he ends up finding the symptoms of the universe in there. Although it’s true that Gaga doesn’t electro-shock her little monsters’ tongues to get them to sign a contract of cultural exclusivity (she doesn’t even have to), China isn’t taking any chances. And while the marks on the body may differ (some are beaten to death for not singing the Chinese anthem), the symbolic strategy is the same, whether it’s the English against the Irish, America against the rest of the world, or a choir of Tibetan children performing “Your Mother Is the Republic of China”: My song is all you will sing.