The immigration and refugee crisis is at the heart of husband-and-wife filmmaking team Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin’s The Sweet Requiem, opening July 12 at IFC. Unfortunately, the film gets bogged down in its agenda-driven narrative. Writer-director Sonam and producer-director Sarin, who were both born in India — Sonam’s parents were Tibetan refugees — have been outspoken regarding the treatment of Tibetans by the Chinese government, as depicted in such earlier works as 2007’s fictional Dreaming Lhasa and the 2010 documentary The Sun Behind the Clouds, but they tend to make their points with a heavy hand, often preaching to the choir. The Sweet Requiem follows that pattern.
The film travels back and forth between the present day, when a grown Dolkar (Tenzin Dolker) is shocked to see Gompo (Jampa Kalsang) at the Tibetan refugee settlement in North Delhi where she and other exiles live, and eighteen years in the past, when Gompo leads a small party, including the young Dolkar (Tenzin Dechen) and her father, Migmar (Rabyoung Thonden Gyahkhang), on a dangerous journey across a frigid, snow-filled landscape as they attempt to escape China and make it to the Indian border alive, knowing that the Chinese military is looking for them. Dolkar works in a threading salon but wants to go back to school, and she has a tight-knit group of friends, including Dorjee (Shavo Dorjee), who is attracted to her, but she is haunted by what happened on the journey, especially to her father and old man Ghen-la (Nyima Dhondup) and by her inability to contact her mother, Tsering (Tashi Choedon), and sister, Wangmo (Lobsang Dolkar), who stayed behind. Desperate to know what’s happening in the land she left, Dolkar watches as a stream of monks set themselves on fire as political statements.
The Sweet Requiem has a strong setup and it looks great, David McFarland’s (mostly) handheld camera moving from the pristinely white Himalayan mountains of the past to the refugee settlement of the present, with its dark and narrow winding corridors. Sonam and Sarin explore the connection between the refugees and the Tibetan culture; several characters wear pro-Tibet T-shirts, but they also attend dance-workout sessions that meld India with Tibet and other cultures. Sadly, such lines as “The spirit of the Tibetan people will never be broken” land like lead; subtlety is not the filmmakers’ forte. But Dechen, in her cinematic debut, gives a poignant performance, and the cinematography and Michael Montes’s score stand out. Opening weekend will feature several Q&As with Sonam and Sarin, joined by Tim McHenry on July 12 at 2:30, Beth Citron on July 13 at 2:30, John Halpern on July 13 at 7:40, and Scott Macaulay on July 14 at 2:30.