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Quiet Storm: Pema Tseden and the emergence of Tibetan cinema By Tenzing Sonam
Phayul[Monday, July 29, 2013 09:16]
by Tenzing Sonam

In 2011, two new films from Tibet – Pema Tseden’s third feature film, Old Dog, and his cinematographer Sonthar Gyal’s debut, The Sun Beaten Path – appeared on the international film festival circuit. With the release of these two films, Tibet’s nascent film movement was finally coming of age. Pema Tseden’s two earlier films, The Silent Holy Stones (2005) and The Search (2009) had ushered the birth of Tibetan cinema, there being no precedent for any kind of serious film tradition in Tibet prior to their release. As an exile Tibetan filmmaker based in India, I have followed the development of this cinema in my homeland with avid interest. I find it nothing short of miraculous that we can even begin to discuss the possibility of a Tibetan cinema emerging from within Tibet.

Unlike writers, painters or musicians, filmmakers cannot create their work on their own. The discipline necessarily requires a complex support network to sustain it, from the financing aspect to the production and distribution logistics. In addition, while all films made in China need official sanction, films made in the Tibet Autonomous Region or involving Tibetan characters require special approval. In an authoritarian society like China, where even Chinese filmmakers find their films banned for perceived transgressions of what is within the realms of the permissible, the situation for a Tibetan filmmaker – given Tibet’s highly sensitive and unstable political situation – is far more dangerous. The slightest hint of anything politically or socially subversive in a script submitted for approval would be reason enough for rejection. Indeed, for a Tibetan filmmaker, such a provocation could mean more than simply being denied permission to make the film; it could be the grounds for arrest and imprisonment. The choices that Pema Tseden and now, Sonthar Gyal, have had to make in order to produce their films – and to do so without compromising on their integrity – has forced their cinema along an unusual trajectory. It is a cinema that has been shaped by the need to express itself as freely as possible within a restrictive context that seeks to crush that very freedom.

I heard about Pema Tseden’s first film, The Silent Holy Stones, in late 2005. The Chinese government was publicising it as the first ever-dramatic feature film made by a Tibetan in the Tibetan language, in this case, the Amdo dialect of what China calls Qinghai Province. This was mildly irksome to me since my partner, Ritu Sarin, and I had just made our own first dramatic feature, Dreaming Lhasa, a film set among the Tibetan refugee community in India, and were then in the midst of promoting it. Also, Khyentse Norbu, a Tibetan-Bhutanese filmmaker, had made The Cup, an internationally acclaimed film in the Tibetan language a few years before. But there was no question that this was the first feature film made by a Tibetan in Tibet that was being launched on the international stage. My interest was immediately piqued. Like most Tibetans who grew up in exile, I had the view that Tibetans in Tibet had no freedom at all, much less the creative freedom to express themselves openly. What, I wondered, could this film, made with obvious official sanction, possibly have to say about the true situation in Tibet? The exile Tibetan narrative had conditioned us into believing that we, the exiles, were the upholders of Tibetan culture, which in Tibet had been diminished, corrupted even, by the Chinese occupation. I instinctively expected a film that would, at best, present a rosy picture of life in Tibet and, at worst, be out-and-out propaganda. Even the director’s name (Pema Tseden was then called Wainma Caidan, a crude sinicisation of the Tibetan pronunciation) seemed to confirm my prejudice.

I finally caught up with The Silent Holy Stones at a public screening in New York. As the film unfolded, my reservations melted away. I found myself gently sucked into its quiet narrative, a deceptively simple, almost ethnographic, tale of a young monk’s obsession with watching a popular television series – an adaptation of the Chinese Buddhist classic, Journey to the West – and his efforts to bring a video player and a television monitor back to his monastery to allow his teacher to watch it with him. Coincidentally, at around the same time, this very same series, dubbed in the Lhasa dialect, was the rage among the Tibetan community in India. The film worked as a slice of life and was all the more realistic for its lack of any deep dramatic tension. This was complemented by the non-professional cast who, although sometimes stilted in delivering their lines, more than made up for it by their earnest identification with their roles. What came through strongly was its sense of “Tibetan-ness”, its assertion of Tibetan cultural identity as something that was enduring, dynamic and integral, despite the changes that were taking place. It operated at a deeply humanistic level and was imbued with a sense of nostalgia for dying traditions and a stoic acceptance of the inevitability of change.

The film was a revelation on many levels, not least the fact that a Tibetan filmmaker from my homeland had made a technically and creatively accomplished film that displayed a unique Tibetan sensibility. Pema Tseden was a graduate of China’s premier film school, The Beijing Film Academy, and his film reflected its pedigree. I was impressed by his attempt to forge his own cinematic style. The film was structured in a rigorously formal style. There were very few close-ups; most of the film unfolded in a series of long, static takes. The vast, treeless landscape of Pema Tseden’s native Amdo (Qinghai Province) was a reassuring presence, a character in itself, reinforcing the age-old bond between the nomadic Tibetans and their environment. The film allowed me to experience a sense of ordinary life in Tibet, something that was beyond my experience or imagination, and catch a glimpse of how people there were coping with their everyday struggles. The Silent Holy Stones and the films that came after it showed me a different, more complex, picture of life in Tibet than the simplistic generalisations I had grown up with. It made me realise that although, as an exile living in the so-called free world, I had the freedom to tackle any subject I wanted, particularly political ones, Pema Tseden had something I could never have: a living connection to our people and our homeland.

One thing struck me as I watched the film; the absence of any Chinese presence. Other than a few passing references – Chinese news broadcasts on TV, and the occasional shop signs in Chinese characters – the film takes place in a Tibet that is compellingly Tibetan. The only clue we have to the larger, sinicised world that surrounds the characters in the film, and whose influence dictates the changes taking place in their lives, is in a conversation that the young monk has with his brother when he comes home. He asks him what he is studying at school and his brother replies that he is studying Chinese because that is the only way to get work in the city. The monk states that studying Tibetan would allow one to read the Buddhist texts but his brother shyly tells him that he is more interested in going to the city. This is the only clue we have to the fragility of Tibetan culture within the context of this other, larger reality, looming just outside the frame of the film.

I understood immediately that this decision to locate the film within a purely Tibetan setting was a deliberate choice. It was Pema Tseden’s way of telling a story that would reflect the importance of his native culture and traditions, and highlight the inevitable changes they were undergoing, without directly commenting on their source or cause. These changes could well be the result of China’s colonial presence and its policies in Tibet, but they could also be more universal, the consequence of modernisation and economic progress for all traditional societies. This ambiguity allowed Pema Tseden to carve out the breathing space he required to be allowed to make and show his film in China and the outside world. It also set the template for the kind of Tibetan cinema that would be tolerated by the Chinese authorities.

In March 2008, the Tibetan plateau erupted in a series of protests and demonstrations that quickly turned into the largest uprising against Chinese rule since 1959. Fifty years after China’s takeover of Tibet, the momentum of the Tibetan struggle was restored and taken into a new direction. Henceforth, Tibetans of all backgrounds, and not just monks and nuns, had a stake in the struggle. Most importantly, the intellectual classes – writers, poets, musicians, students – who had hitherto mostly maintained a neutral stance, found themselves swept into the political arena and were breaking their silence. Crucially, despite China’s claims that the Dalai Lama and the exile Tibetans were responsible for fomenting the unrest, it was Tibetans in Tibet who were initiating the political revolt. It was in this charged climate that Pema Tseden’s second film, The Search, had its international release in 2009.

Knowing how much more repressive the situation in Tibet had become since his first film, and how much more difficult it was for Tibetan artists to work in this suffocating environment, I was excited and happy to see that Pema Tseden had successfully made another film. I noticed that he had changed the Romanised spelling of his name to Pema Tseden, which was a much closer transcription of the Tibetan spelling. To me this was a small but telling amendment.

The Search was a much more ambitious film – both stylistically and in its elliptical narrative arc – than his debut. A road movie, the film follows a director and his team as they drive around the Amdo highlands looking for actors to play the lead roles in a cinematic adaptation of the much-loved Tibetan opera, Drime Kunden. This Buddhist story of the compassionate king, Drime Kunden, who sacrifices everything, including his wife and children, and finally even his eyes, for the benefit of others, had already made its appearance in The Silent Holy Stones, where the opera is the centrepiece of the Tibetan New Year celebrations in the young monk’s village. There, we see that most of the audience are the elderly or the very young. As soon as the opera finishes, a bunch of youngsters takes over the grounds and begins to dance raucously to the loud thump of Tibetan techno. In The Search, the opera is much more integral to the plot; its cinematic realisation is the object and purpose of the film’s narrative. Snippets of its arias are sung during various auditions, evoking both the beauty of the songs and the heart-breaking nature of Drime Kunden’s sacrifice. The film progresses in a series of set pieces: long drives punctuated by meetings and auditions. An extended tale of unrequited love narrated by the film’s producer during the road journey forms one sub-plot. Another is the story of a mysterious girl – potentially the star the director is looking for – who accompanies them for much of the film, keeping her face hidden from view. She will only agree to play the lead female role if the director helps her meet her ex-boyfriend, who used to play Drime Kunden opposite her in their local village production, and who now teaches at a distant provincial school. Their enigmatic reunion forms the subtle climax of the film.

Unhurriedly paced, the film is more stylistically challenging than The Silent Holy Stones. It is almost entirely made up of static, long takes that unfold within a deliberately flat, two-dimensional frame. The lack of close-ups and facial expressions means that the film maintains a distance with the viewer. Characters speak long passages of dialogue, often with their backs turned to us. Sometimes, this masks an awkwardness in delivery, but mostly it serves to make us focus on each scene in its tableau-like entirety, rather than having us identify too closely with any particular character. This stylistic formality certainly does not make for easy viewing, and there are moments when the film teeters on the edge of losing its audience. But it is to Pema Tseden’s credit that he always guides it back on track. An emotional force at its heart seeps through the film and gradually surfaces so that by the end, we are left strangely moved. Like his earlier film, The Search is an elegiac journey through a changing Tibet, one where fewer and fewer people know how to sing the arias from Drime Kunden, one where the inroads of modernisation are everywhere palpable. But the film is also a meditation on the Buddhist idea of spiritual sacrifice as opposed to the more fleeting pleasures of earthly love. It is clear that the director in the film is drawn to the example of Drime Kunden’s sacrifice. But by the end of the film, he is no longer certain about the meaning of this sacrifice. On more than one occasion, the question arises about what choice, if any, the sacrificed – the wife and children – had in Drime Kunden’s grand gesture of compassion.

Even as loss of culture in a larger sense is a major concern of the film, there is ample evidence that at a basic level, Tibetan culture remains vibrant. Everyone in the film, young and old, lay and monastic, speaks Tibetan. In a telling scene with a group of young girls, none of whom know how to sing an aria from Drime Kunden, the director asks if they can read Tibetan. The girls can and read surprisingly well. In exile, we often point to the loss of Tibetan language in Tibet as a sign that we are losing our culture under Chinese rule, but Pema Tseden shows us that it is not quite so straightforward. The problem is not so much the immediate dissolution of language or religious practice, which as far as we can tell, is relatively healthy, as it is the deeper degeneration of cultural values and traditional practices. For Pema Tseden, the connection to our past is crucial if we are to survive as a people into the future. As in his earlier films, there is again not a single Chinese character in the film, and no reference to any Chinese presence other than passing street signs. In the absence of political freedom, this emphasis on Tibetan culture and identity itself becomes a kind of political statement.

Interestingly, although the film is shorn of all references to its immediate Chinese context, there are signs that its characters are in touch with influences from the exile Tibetan world. The songs of Techung, a popular singer based in America, play continuously on the car stereo during the long drives and form the soundtrack for much of the film. This is unusual, not only because Techung is an exile Tibetan but because his songs are sung in the Central Tibetan dialect, which would not normally be comprehensible in Amdo where the film takes place. In another scene that takes place in a nightclub, a young Tibetan can be seen in the background, playing a guitar and singing in English. He could only be someone who has returned from India where playing the guitar and singing in English is much more common than in Tibet. The words of his song that we can make out intermittently through the hubbub of the conversation in the foreground is “…lose my culture…”

In the two years since The Search was released, the situation in Tibet continued to deteriorate. The number of politically motivated arrests escalated. At least 70 intellectuals, among them several writers and musicians, are currently known to be in prison. More repressive measures were put in place, and ordinary Tibetans were subjected to a heightened campaign of patriotic re-education. In the past year, a spate of self-immolations by Tibetans protesting these harsh regulations, mostly in Sichuan province but also in neighbouring Qinghai, triggered more unrest, uncertainty and security reprisals. It was in this climate that Pema Tseden’s third feature film, Old Dog, made its international debut in late 2011. This was followed shortly afterwards by Sonthar Gyal’s The Sun Beaten Path. To me, the appearance of these two films at a time when the climate in Tibet was clearly not conducive for any kind of creative or intellectual activity was cause for encouragement.

Pema Tseden’s Old Dog was different to anything he had made before. It had a definite narrative arc, a dramatic dénouement, and a clear message. It was also angrier than his earlier films and there was a palpable sense of frustration and pain. For the first time, the sense I had in his earlier films that the more resilient aspects of Tibetan culture could still somehow make up for what was being lost, was now replaced by something bordering on futility. Interestingly, a Chinese character made his first entry into a Pema Tseden film, albeit in a minor role. The story is straightforward: the boom in demand for Tibetan nomad mastiffs among China’s rich has created a crisis in isolated nomadic communities like the one in the film. Mastiffs are either being sold off or they are being stolen. The good-for-nothing son of an old nomad decides to sell their aging dog to a Chinese businessman in a local town before it gets stolen. But he hasn’t counted on his father’s stubbornness to hold on to the dog, which, he explains, is a nomad’s most precious possession. “I would sell myself rather than sell my dog,” he exclaims. The father gets his dog back from the businessman but despite all his efforts to hold on to his dog, the old man will not be left in peace. The son of a neighbouring nomad, who was famous in his time for his hunting skills, is now a middleman, buying dogs for Chinese clients. He constantly tries to tempt the father with more money and even makes an attempt to steal the dog. When the old man liberates his dog within the ruins of a monastery, it ends up again with the Chinese businessman.

The entire film takes place beneath leaden skies. Thunder crackles ominously every now and again. The nomad, his son and his son’s wife live in a small house. They spend their evenings in silence, huddled in front of a TV watching inane Chinese advertisements and sitcoms. There is none of the solace of religion or extended family life that infused Pema Tseden’s earlier films. A row of metal fencing follows a path from their house as far as the eye can see, creating an artificial barrier in what was once open grazing ground. In a scene charged with foreboding, a solitary sheep finds itself on the wrong side of the fence and makes several desperate attempts to rejoin its flock before finding a gap that lets it through. Out of the rolling grassland, a bleak frontier boomtown emerges. Long rows of faux Tibetan concrete housing with garage front stores line the muddy main street. Garbage lies strewn on the roadside. The sound of drills and jackhammers fills the air. The Chinese businessman operates out of a scrapyard where mastiffs are chained to the rusting remains of hulking tankers. To add to the nomad’s misfortune, his son, a drunkard, is impotent, emasculated, it seems, by the changing times that he is unable to adapt to. Finally, a Chinese client from the mainland comes himself, offering more and more outrageous sums of money, which the old man stubbornly refuses. In the end, the old man realises he has only one option to free both his dog and himself from this unending persecution. In a beautifully realised and powerful climactic scene, he takes this unthinkable step.

Unlike his previous films, where concern for the loss of culture is mitigated by a depiction of its more positive and resilient features, Old Dog is an unapologetically depressing film. There is a palpable anger in the film, a sense of pent-up frustration that explodes in that desperate, final scene. Although there is nowhere any indictment of the specific Chinese policies that are responsible for fencing traditional pasture and forcing nomads to relocate to fixed housing, the message is clear: outside forces, symbolised by the frivolous demand for Tibetan mastiffs among China’s nouveaux riches are irrevocably destroying an ancient way of life. It is without question Pema Tseden’s least ambiguous and most powerful and realised film to date. By stepping out of the comfort zone he established for himself with his first two films, Old Dog seems to indicate a subtle change in direction for him, and it will be interesting to see where this leads him.

But Pema Tseden is no longer alone on this journey to shape a uniquely Tibetan cinema. The seeds he planted as Tibet’s pioneer filmmaker are bearing fruit; he is now joined by his erstwhile cameraman, Sonthar Gyal, whose assured first film, The Sun Beaten Path, is a fitting addition to the genre. Like Pema Tseden’s films, The Sun Beaten Path is set within a completely Tibetan context, and again, there is not a single Chinese character in sight (the only exception is a passing Chinese tourist who takes a snapshot of an old Tibetan lady saying her prayers, a completely alien intrusion). The landscape, the unforgiving flatlands of the Changthang, the Northern Plains, is a constant and overwhelming presence. The plot, although superficially simple, transcends its specific Tibetan context and achieves a universal resonance with its themes of loss and redemption.

Like The Search, the film is a road movie. Nyima, a young man, is returning home to Amdo after having prostrated all the way to Lhasa in atonement for a terrible accident that he holds himself responsible for. Half-crazed with grief and guilt, and still distraught despite his long pilgrimage, he shuns all human company, preferring to walk alone on the black thread of the highway that cuts across the bleak, desert landscape. Giant lorries and buses trundle ceaselessly past, going to and from Lhasa. An old man, a fellow traveller, intrigued by Nyima’s mysterious malaise, decides to accompany him and help him recover his sanity despite being initially rebuffed in his efforts. Gently stubborn, wise and humorous, the old man’s insistence on befriending him and the little stories he tells him along the way slowly bring Nyima back to his senses. Their journey together is interspersed by flashbacks to the accident and its immediate aftermath. The film unspools at a leisurely pace. There are plenty of moments of quiet reflection and, unlike Pema Tseden’s distancing technique, Sonthar Gyal makes extensive use of extreme close-ups. Yeshe Lhadruk, the non-professional actor who plays the young man delivers a powerful performance. With a minimum of dialogue, his deeply expressive face powerfully projects his inner confusion and guilt.

Although there are many similarities with Pema Tseden’s earlier films, most notably in the focus on a purely Tibetan story with no overt reference to any Chinese presence, The Sun Beaten Path takes a very different thematic approach. Less concerned with specific questions of cultural identity, Sonthar Gyal attempts to locate his film within a more universal context; filial responsibility, death, guilt and redemption through the acceptance of the everyday cycle of life.

Tibetan cinema necessarily had a quiet birth. As we have seen, prevailing circumstances and unavoidable forces dictated its shape and propelled it along a particular path. But despite being boxed in by these dictates, it has survived and, like a gathering storm, is building momentum. More and more filmmakers are making films, mostly shorts for the moment, and releasing them on DVD and on the internet. My hope is that filmmakers from other parts of Tibet will follow the example of Pema Tseden and Sonthar Gyal and make this a truly pan-Tibetan movement. As it evolves, Tibetan cinema will certainly face fresh challenges. New policies, such as the relocation of nomads, restrictions on religious practice in monasteries, and the insistence on political re-education campaigns continue to breed resentment and unhappiness among Tibetans with Chinese rule. The ongoing unrest in many parts of Tibet and the increasing use of force and repression by the Chinese authorities to contain it leaves no Tibetan unaffected. In this growing climate of fear and oppression, can the wilful erasure of any Chinese presence from Tibetan films continue? As we have seen from Pema Tseden’s Old Dog, the pressure to address directly, in some form or another, the nature of China’s relationship with Tibet will only grow. How will Tibetan filmmakers negotiate the dilemma that doing this will entail? Finding the balance between taking this difficult step while maintaining the precious space that Tibet’s emerging cinema has clawed out for itself may well be the next phase in the evolution of Tibetan cinema.

The article was first published in French in Monde Chinois, Tibet: créer pour resister, Issue No. 31, Autumn 2012. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

Tenzing Sonam is a filmmaker and writer currently based in Dharamshala. He is the co-director of White Crane Films (www.whitecranefilms.com)

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.

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