07/10/2013 01:25 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

Drapchi : Putting a Human Face on the Suffering of Tibetans

On the morning of April 24, a 23-year-old Tibetan woman set fire to herself in Dzamthang county in Sichuan. Later that same day, two Tibetan monks in their early 20s set themselves on fire outside the main prayer hall of the Taktsang Lhamo Monastery, also in Sichuan. The three self-immolations brought the total number of Tibetans who have set fire to themselves to more than 120 since 2009, depending on whose numbers you use.

The gruesome trend is a reaction to China's repressive policies in Tibetan areas, which affect every aspect of life there. Yet the world is hardly taking notice. Maybe Tibet is too small a place to win international attention, especially at a time when China is quick to intimidate any government that dares challenge it on such sensitive issues.

And so, Drapchi, an 85 minute long debut feature film by India-based Independent filmmaker Arvind Iyer, which puts a human face on the suffering of Tibetans at home and in exile, is a timely and important reminder of why people should care about Tibet.

Drapchi, which is the name of Tibet's most dreaded prison, is the story of Yiga Gyalnang, a Tibetan opera singer who is kidnapped and sent to solitary confinement. Iyer says that the protagonist represents "the quiet suffering of thousands of Tibetans who trudge across the Himalayas to seek political refuge in another country."

The film begins as Yiga makes her way to freedom in Nepal, walking the final kilometers across a patch of no man's land where Chinese soldiers have been known to shoot first and ask no questions later.

Yiga is played convincingly by Namgyal Lhamo, a famous Tibetan opera singer who now resides in the Netherlands, and who is known affectionately as "The Nightingale of Tibet." Iyer says the film is partially based on her life.

Feeling safe in Kathmandu, Yiga begins to pick up the pieces of her life and to forget the bitter past. She rents a small room and resumes her career as a singer. Having been deprived of her freedom, she now delights in the simple things in life -- holding hands with another woman as they chat, feeding pigeons in a square, buying a single flower and her friendship with a sweet young monk who has an infectious smile.

The movie then shifts back to her kidnapping on a highway on the outskirts of Lhasa by government agents. Her kidnappers execute her aging spiritual teacher before dragging her away. She is imprisoned in Drapchi, where she is brutally raped and tortured before being moved to an underground cabin in the middle of desolate land.

Her crime? Singing Tibetan songs that anger the Chinese authorities. In confinement, Yiga meets other Tibetan political prisoners, who she says were snatched from their homes during midnight raids that were "like some cruel echo of Nazi Germany."

Iyer says that although the film is set against the backdrop of the prison, the title "serves more as a metaphor for the illegal detention and unlawful persecution of Tibetans inside Tibet," and a "symbol of control and fear."

Drapchi is the name of Lhasa's Prison No. 1. First built as a military garrison, it was turned into a prison after the Tibetan uprising in 1959, and was officially made into a prison six years later. It was once the largest prison in China, and Tibetans speak of brutal tortures there. It has an estimated 1,000 inmates, including some 600 Tibetans who are said to be political prisoners, many of them monks and nuns, aged 18 to 85.

Former actual prisoners have describe how prison guards used various implements to beat inmates, including gun-butts, bicycle pumps, iron rods and belt buckles. Some prisoners have been suspended from the ceiling with their hands tied behind the backs or hung by their ankles until they lose consciousness. Some of the worst treatment is reserved for Tibetan nuns, including beatings, torture, and rape. It's said that the Chinese authorities force prisoners to grow their hair as part of the humiliation process, as opposed to Chinese prisons, where Han Chinese inmates have their heads shaved, also a form of humiliation. Monks and nuns traditionally shave their heads as symbol of their religious commitment.

Held as a transient prisoner in a farmhouse that has been turned into a makeshift holding cell, Yiga discovers a way out of the building and makes a harrowing escape though the mountains to the border with Nepal helped along the way by sympathetic Tibetan farmers. As she walks down a highway approaching Nepal, she turns around for a final longing look at her motherland. She then turns quickly with resolve in the direction of Nepal and continues down the road. While crossing the small hanging bridge into Nepal, she ties a khata, or Tibetan offering scarf, to the bridge cable and brings her hands together in prayer.

The film features actual documentary footage of a brutal crackdown by Chinese police, which was smuggled out of Tibet in 2008 after disturbances broke out there. In the sequence, police march through Tibetan villages with barking German Shepherds pulling at their leashes. We then see the police viciously dragging Tibetans from their homes, forcibly pushing down their heads, in some cases blood flowing from their faces.

When Yiga is in prison, scenes of abuse and torture of Tibetans are forcibly portrayed in black and white animated drawings with faint screams heard in the background.

"It was a challenge for me to portray the reality of violence, abuse and torture that takes place inside prisons in Tibet- without going visually over the edge," says Iyer. "Animation is about the power and effectiveness of imagination and it can cut across age-barriers. It often speaks about the unsaid and shows you the unseen."

The film has limited dialogue, partially narrated by a British man, a former spy, who allegedly served 10 years in Drapchi for spying, and who recalls Yiga's haunting voice in the prison.

The beautiful cinematography is the work of Trevor Tweeten, a young New Yorker still in his twenties. We see street scenes in Katmandu, where colorful prayer flags flutter in the wind, scattering their prayers to the heavens, Tibetans circumambulating around a Tibetan stupa, the faithful spinning prayer wheels, monks chanting and rows of yak butter candles flittering in the darkness of a monastery,

All of the Tibetan songs featured in the film are sung by the talented Namgyal Lhamo, who has performed solo at various Tibetan Freedom concerts alongside the likes of Alanis Morissette, the Beastie Boys and Bjork.

Drapchi has been making the rounds of international film festivals, including Cairo, Warsaw and Rome and it awaits it's North American premiere. Tibetan viewers, many of whom have shared Yiga's experiences, have been moved to tears as they watch this poignant film.