By Tenzin Monlam
With the warm winter sun for company, Tenzin Dasel, arguably the first Tibetan woman filmmaker, talks about her latest project, Royal Cafe, a ‘from the heart’ movie which tells real stories about Tibetans living abroad. At the world premier of her film at the Dharamsala International Film Festival, she shares with us her journey from being a young girl with aspirations to become an actor to her actually directing two films so far.
Phayul: How do you feel coming back to your old school to showcase your film?
Dasel: It feels weird. I have a lot of memories of this hall (Dekyi Tsering Auditorium) from dancing on Bollywood songs to sleeping during school evening prayers. So I won’t say I am proud. It is a weird feeling.
P: What inspired you to make a film on a subject which shows real Tibetans and not compassionate Buddhist human beings, as seen by many?
D: I did this film to question ourselves, the Tibetans who are making films on different subjects. We need to dig a lot deeper and be honest because we have a lot of stories to tell. We should tell them and not just stick to certain subjects relating to Tibet-China or Buddhism. We must explore ourselves since everyone has a unique story to tell and that was my motivation. It was never my intention to make money or get fame.
This mentality is prevalent in our society like other societies. The main message behind making this movie was to encourage the Tibetan youth to dream big. Success will come if we work hard. We are always told not to be selfish but I would urge people to be selfish to achieve their dreams.
P: How was the casting process and character writing? How did the story build up?
D: Before approaching the cast I observed how they talk and react. That became their character. I was very nervous about working with a professional actor since I am not a professional director. Apart from Pema Shitsetsang, all the actors were amateurs. They were shy, yet enthusiastic about acting and seeing themselves on the big screen. I asked them to be themselves.
Pema brought professionalism to the team. She was such a sport. She had to come all the way from Switzerland for the shoot.
As far as the story is concerned, it was a big question on migration and issues related to it. It was an honest question to myself and my fellow Tibetans about our real motivation for migration. I find it ironic to see Tibetans working at Chinese restaurants. Even though it is worst of work, they work there since they pay better.
P: Were you trying to show the actual lives of Tibetans living in Paris?
D: It is not only us but others too post pictures of themselves wearing good clothes in front of the Eiffel Tower and other big cities, but they won’t show the actual places where they live or how they live. However, Tibetans living in India would only see those pictures and fantasize about such a life.
On the bright side, with greater influx of Tibetans in Paris, a small community has been formed. They help each other in difficult times.
P: You have questioned Tibetans working in Chinese restaurants and one of your characters also complains of the same. Did you purposely highlight the topic in the film?
D: Yes, but there is no other way. There are many Tibetans who have come from Tibet. They do not know French and end up working in Chinese restaurants. I am not saying anything against it. It is an advantage that they know the language. We have nothing against the Chinese and their language. It is just the Chinese government that we protest against.
I have just raised a question on how we can improve the situation and pave a new way for ourselves.
P: In the film, the lead woman character is named Dasel. Is there any similarity between you and the character’s life?
D: Yes. I had a strained relationship with my father. Though in our society it is a custom to never speak ill about your parents, it is a reality in many parts of our community. The whole process of story is mine but there are many other stories merged as well. It is an amalgamation of fiction and reality so I won’t endorse it as my own biography.
Another reason for naming the character Dasel is to take ownership of the story. Sometimes a person with the same name as the character would react indifferently and deny being anywhere similar to the character. So, I have taken the responsibility on myself.
P: The character Dasel talks about her inhibitions of expressing any sexual feelings. Why the restriction? Don’t you think our society has changed?
D: It certainly has. But if I show such scenes, I want to do it poetically. Coincidently, I want to make a romantic movie next but I am still juggling with three different ideas. So let’s see.
P: Since it is a ‘zero-budget film’, how did you convince the Tibetan actors and crew to work for free?
D: You have to work with Tibetans to know their desire to be in front of the camera. They are bit shy but once they act, they do it from their heart and it is like they are helping me. My co-director also came on board, saying ‘I want to try it out since it is a new genre’. But I did buy coffee and snacks during the shoot. (Chuckles). I should do that much.
P: What challenges did you face during the making of Royal Cafe?
D: Since it was a zero budget film, I was most dependent on the availability of the cameraman and crew. When you don’t pay them, you cannot ask them to come at your beck and call. So I had to work accordingly and call my actors at the given time. But there was great help from them. All actors were really sweet to take out time.
P: Why didn’t you try to get a producer?
D: The process of getting a producer on board is long and convoluted. First, I have to present them a script and then wait for their response. I am new in this field and haven’t developed many contacts. It was like a challenge for me to see if I could manage without a budget.
P: You are a fashion designer by profession and director by passion. So how are you going to prioritize between the two?
D: Both the titles have an aura around them but I am still struggling. However, I am happy that I could manage to achieve what I aspired for. I am fortunate that I received a great opportunity to study fashion and I would someday love to do a fashion show.
P: What next after Royal Café?
D: I am looking forward to making a third film. I am currently in the casting and the pre-production stage. You learn a lot in the process of filmmaking. I am really excited.
P: Thank you for the time and wishes you all the success in future endeavors.