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Documentary of a Tibetan refugee

Dec. 4, 2017

Tibetans have held on to their religion, language, and culture. However, some people think China’s policy on ethnic groups is too repressive. And because of that, there are about 130,000 Tibetan refugees around the world.

Last month, “The Diary of a Tibetan Woman” was released in Tokyo. The film was directed by a Japanese documentary filmmaker, Marie Ogawa. She and the subject of the film shared their thoughts with us.

In 2007, Lhamo Tso left her homeland and crossed the Himalayas. She defected to Dharamsala in northern India -- home to the Tibetan government in exile as well as several thousand Tibetan refugees.

Lhamo Tso, who is illiterate, gets up early to make bread to sell on the roadside, the only way she can earn any money for her family. The director, Marie Ogawa met Lhamo Tso in 2009, and observed her difficult life. Ogawa had been drawn to study in Dharamsala because of her love of Tibetan culture. She spent the next 6 years filming Lhamo Tso.

"Lhamo Tso never got pessimistic over her problems. Instead, she actively searched for new opportunities and took on new challenges. Her passion made me believe I should not give up on my mission to film her," says Ogawa.

Lhamo Tso's husband made a documentary showing Tibetans giving their views on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Their opinions were mostly critical. "This is about the plight of the Tibetan people -- helpless and frustrated. I hope everyone will pay special attention and support it," he said. As a result of the documentary, he was sentenced to 6 years for “inciting subversion of state power” in China. Lhamo Tso has to live without her husband, and care for his parents, too. "I wonder if I’ll ever see him again," his mother cries. "I’m sure you’ll see him," Lhamo Tso responds.

Ogawa invited Lhamo Tso to Japan for the film’s premiere in hopes of sharing the Tibetan's story of survival on the stormy waters of fate with a wide audience. “Sometimes I thought I would have suffered less if my husband were with me, but I’m trying my best to overcome my hardships, because he’s sacrificed so much for Tibet and for the Tibetan people,” says Lhamo Tso.

While she pursued new opportunities in her life, Lhamo Tso found she wanted to give the film a message of her own, rather than just being a subject of the work. “I am a typical woman who grew up in a rural Tibetan village, and I never went to school. I hope that other people who are having a difficult time will see this film and the changes in my life as I experienced various misfortunes and prevailed,” Lhamo Tso says.

One sequence in the film depicts the day her husband was released from prison in his homeland after 7 years. Lhamo Tso and her children speak to him on the phone. Their hearts are pounding. But Lhamo Tso says that her husband is currently under surveillance by the Chinese government and is unable to leave Tibet. The family still hasn’t been able to reunite.

"I thought there are many people around the world who are in a similar plight as Lhamo Tso. By seeing her life on film, I want the audience to feel that they are not so far from refugees and think about them. I hope the film inspires the audience to live and feel a little differently," says Ogawa. Ogawa wants to keep filming Lhamo Tso and hopes one day, she’ll be able to film the reunion of the family.