Nawang N. Anja-Tsang (Sonam) is a Tibetan film director based in London. He has been making documentaries about to Tibet and Tibetans since 2011. His first two documentaries, Little Tibet and Little Tibet II, detail his searches for a glimpse of Tibet in northeast India and Nepal. His third, Drensol (“Memory” in Tibetan) records the experiences of elderly Tibetans before, during, and after the Chinese invasion of their country. His most recent documentary, A Mother’s Son, is about the self-immolation of 16-year-old Dorjee Tsering in India last year. Tsering is one of the approximately 155 Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet who since 2009 have self-immolated in protest against Chinese rule.
Recently, he sat down with VOC to speak about his work.
VOC: Can you tell me about your background—where you were born, where you grew up?
SONAM: My name is Nawang N. Anja-Tsang, but I’m known as Sonam, which means “merit” in Tibetan. My parents escaped Tibet in 1959 and I was born in India, where I spent my childhood. We were quite a poor family, and I was the first one to go to school. A German woman whom I have never met sponsored me to be educated in a Tibetan school. After school, I worked for a while, and then 17 years ago I came to London.
VOC: How do people in England usually react when you tell them you’re from Tibet?
SONAM: There are three ways. One is with fascination. But with the people who know the history there is a totally different angle. They say, “Oh, I’m so sorry your country’s under China.” So there’s no middle way, either it’s really bad or it’s Shangri-La. But slowly people are starting to understand it. And since Buddhism is more popular in the West, people also think that since you are a Tibetan you must be practicing every sort of meditation, which I don’t do any of. So those are the three different views I get.
VOC: I noticed in Little Tibet that you had two flags on your jeep, a Tibetan one and a British one. Is that how you see yourself?
SONAM: I am trying to show that in one sense, as a Tibetan, I am occupied, I don’t have a country, but in another sense, as a British citizen, I am physically free.
VOC: How did you get into filmmaking?
SONAM: When I first got to London it was quite hard. I worked in many different kinds of jobs, including as an extra in movies. My friend had introduced me to this and I did it solely for the money. I didn’t go to university and I’ve got no professional film qualifications, but when I was on set I saw, for example, how they did retakes for one tiny scene all day and I thought, “That’s how they make films!” At the time I used to support my family back home, but then about ten years later my sisters began helping with this, taking the burden off me a bit. I found that when I became more mentally relaxed, my mind started creating new responsibilities for myself.
Around this time I visited India and met a French tourist who showed me pictures of Ladakh—AKA “Little Tibet.” I had had an idea about a Tibetan in exile in search of Tibet, and when I saw these pictures my whole idea came together. I thought about it more and more and worried that if I didn’t film my idea I would regret it.
And I am happy I made the film because now I have a medium to express myself. Before my only medium was in a social gathering, maybe with a maximum of five people, with two of them drunk, two not interested, and maybe only one who is really interested—you never know who they are. But I am happy now because I have a medium, not just from the documentaries themselves, but also from the screening sessions and touring that I have done with them. And I always tell people, if you don’t believe what I say there’s always the Internet. You can study, look into it, read books. You can see for yourself.
VOC: What made you decide to make A Mother’s Son?
SONAM: When a 16-year-old boy, Dorjee Tsering, self-immolated, there was a lot of media and social media attention. I have long thought that self-immolations should stop, and I believed that I could show another side to the story to try and stop it. Many of the charities who had funded my previous projects didn’t want to touch this subject, but fortunately—I think mainly because of the reputation I had earned with my previous three films—one of them, the International Campaign for Tibet, stuck with me. So I went to India and spoke to Dorjee Tsering’s parents and explained that I didn’t want to glorify their son, but to show both sides of what he had done. And they agreed.
VOC: I remember that at the end of the screening I attended, most people were in tears. Is this the usual reaction audiences have at other screenings?
SONAM: Yes. When people leave the theatre after seeing Little Tibet they are happy, but with the other films people come out sad, especially with A Mother’s Son. My friend in India told me, “Whether people want to walk in and watch it or not is their choice, but when they walk out they don’t have a choice about how they walk out—they are always crying!”
VOC: What did you learn about self-immolations from making this documentary? Did your views change in any way?
SONAM: To be honest, the people who have done this must have thought it through so many times. For them to sacrifice their lives, they must have been through so much mental pressure, or have been tortured, so that they felt that had to do this. But I still believe it’s a waste of life, and our population is already so low. I don’t think they will listen to me, so as a Tibetan my job is to tell them that somebody else is telling them not to do it, therefore I decided to show the story of a mother and father of someone who has self-immolated.
Part II of this interview can be found here.