One of the highlights of my travels over the years has been my visit in 1998 to the edge of the Tibetan plateau in northern Yunnan province in China. The area is stunningly beautiful with its wide open spaces where the sky touches the earth. It’s a stark contrast to Hong Kong’s landscape of skyscraper upon skyscraper where in some places the sun’s rays can barely reach the ground. Even better, though, are the people who live there, who are friendly, warm and seemingly eternally happy. If there is inner peace to be found, here is where you will find it. But change is coming to this corner of the world. China’s growing prosperity is opening up the region, bringing with it both opportunities and threats. The traditional nomadic way of life for many of these people is disappearing. Well-paying mining jobs are luring young people to the larger cities, while improved telecommunications and access to the Internet is lessening their reliance upon each other. Traditional family life is breaking down.
Oscar-winning director Ruby Yang (2007 Best Documentary Short winner, THE BLOOD OF YINGZHOU DISTRICT) was researching a video project about sustainability in this region when she learned about the Norlha workshop in the tiny village of Ritoma, located about 140 kms south-southwest of Lanzhou, in Gansu province. The workshop, run by a Tibetan expatriate, trains and employs former Tibetan nomads to produce premium quality scarves and shawls made from locally-sourced yak fiber. Because these people can now earn a living close to home, there is less incentive for them to move away and they are therefore better able to preserve their traditions and family structures. As Yang also discovered, Ritoma is also well-known in the region for basketball. A few years ago, American Willard (Bill) Johnson arrived at Norlha to put together a men’s basketball team and teach them about strategy and teamwork. Since that time, the program has grown to include a women’s team and, starting this year, a wheelchair basketball program for disabled Tibetan athletes living around the plateau. Yang’s latest documentary, simply entitled RITOMA, tells the story of the village’s jump into the modern world using the sport as a metaphor.
RITOMA is a beautifully shot film about really nice people doing really nice things. Unfortunately, Yang covers too many angles in the film’s brief 57 minutes, leaving storylines dangling and many questions unanswered. At the post-screening Q&A I attended, an audience member asked why the yak herds are getting smaller in that region. I had the same question in my mind and, judging by the murmur rippling through the room when the question was asked, it seems that many other people had the same thought too. Interestingly, the prime reason is not what you might think it is, which means that it should have been answered in the film. A less experienced director than Yang could be forgiven for getting lost in the candy shop, so to speak, but she should have been able to better manage the wealth of material she had to work with. There are simply too many interesting stories here. She should have either cut some out or added another 20 minutes onto her running time.
Yang’s premise that basketball represents modernity is questionable at best and naïve at worst. To me, it represents cultural dominance. In 2008, the first and so far only Tibetan Olympics was held in the Indian town of Dharamsala where Tibetans from all over northern India and Nepal competed in traditional sports like archery, yak racing and wrestling. I doubt that the Chinese government would allow an event like this to take place on Chinese soil but they may be amenable to supporting local, smaller meets. If so, wouldn’t it be better to contribute to the development of a local sport rather than to an imported one? Couldn’t the same lessons be taught and learned? But if these lessons can only be learned through basketball, Yang fails to fully draw the line showing how it is transforming how these people work and behave. Are they becoming more strategic in their business dealings? Are the older workers becoming better mentors to the younger ones? We don’t know. It may just be that this is a story about a small town in the middle of nowhere that loves basketball. If it is, though, then we don’t need to know everything else (and I mean everything) about the town and its people. As wonderful as all those other stories are, they are essentially irrelevant.
At the time of writing, RITOMA is being screened at a few places around Hong Kong. The producer told me that they are looking for a distributor so that more people can see the film. If you have the chance, certainly check it out. It’s not as good a film as it could have or should have been but it’s not bad, and it does present audiences with a window into a corner of the world that few people have seen.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, April 12th at 8:30 am HK time!
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