A consideration of the films and cultural legacy of Tibetan filmmaker and writer Pema Tseden.
In his process of telling impeccably crafted cinematic stories, Pema Tseden became arguably the first Tibetan director to film in Tibet, in Tibetan language, with Tibetan cast & crew. His impact widened further, when he started working as a producer to elevate Tibetan artists when they sought to direct their own films - engendering what many refer to as a Tibetan New Wave. Pema mastered the art of storytelling in a repressive regime. He often walked a line of allegory and metaphor, without losing genuine human emotion in his stories. His loss is tremendous.
Ahead of what may be one of Pema's last film premieres next week, we collect here, some of the considerations and tributes to Pema's body of work, starting with dGenerate Films President Karin Chien. For more on Pema Tseden's films, please visit:
The Search (2009)
Pema Tseden: 1969–2023
by Karin Chien
“This week, we learned of the immeasurable loss of Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden. Pema is a rare filmmaker who commanded a mastery of storytelling and of the cinematic language. And then, Pema carried a community on his shoulders.
In many ways, Pema was the first and he worked hard to produce and champion the work of so many brilliant Tibetan filmmakers to follow. I had long admired Pema’s work before I met him. It was our vision to work with Pema when we started dGenerate Films in 2008. Then when I met Pema, I learned so much from his humanity and his deep kindness. He was always there to take care of us, his friends.
We lost Pema at the peak of his artistry, he had so much more to say and to show us. Pema’s loss leaves a giant hole in global cinema and in our community. It’s one of our greatest honors to have worked with Pema, and to have the privilege to continue to work on The Search, Old Dog, Tharlo, and Jinpa. I hope you have the chance to discover Pema’s work.”
British Film Institute:
Pema Tseden obituary: filmmaker who defined Tibetan cinema
As director, writer, translator and mentor, Pema Tseden, who has died aged 53, was the major figure in Tibetan film culture.
By Tony Rayns
The later films all start from some small incident or situation and then skilfully tease out its repercussions and implications. Often the trigger is some tension between Tibetan and Chinese ways of thinking: the (black) market in China for Tibetan mastiffs in Old Dog, Beijing’s demand that all Tibetans should have ID cards in Tharlo, national policies about restricting family size in Balloon. But Jinpa transcends such issues: it’s a Borges-like fable about a trucker who runs over a sheep while crossing the Kekexili Plateau and finds that he shares his name with a young hitchhiker who’s on a mission to murder an enemy. The film explores Buddhist morality and notions of cyclical time, steadily undermining the bedrock realism of its observation. I suspect it will stand as Pema Tseden’s greatest film.
Pema Tseden, Pioneering Tibetan Filmmaker, Is Dead at 53
His films captured contemporary Tibetan life as Tibetans saw it, devoid of the stereotypes long associated with their homeland.
by Tiffany May
As Pema Tseden’s clout grew, China’s film industry and its audiences began to accept Tibetan as a language used on the big screen. And by combining Tibetan traditions of oral storytelling and song with modern filmmaking formats, his movies gave rise to an entirely new genre that some called the Tibetan New Wave.
“A Tibetan film should show Tibetan life,” Pema Tseden said in an undated interview that was recently released by Kangba TV, a Tibetan-language broadcaster. “In my case, from my first film onward, I wanted my movies to absolutely include characters who are Tibetan, who would all speak Tibetan, and whose behavior and way of thinking were Tibetan. This is what makes Tibetan films different.”
Disparition de Pema Tseden
by Françoise Robin
En quelque sorte, son parcours relevait du miracle : par sa détermination, sa sensibilité et son intelligence, Pema Tseden avait réussi contre toute attente et sans soutien institutionnel ou financier à établir les fondations d’un cinéma tibétain en République populaire de Chine, après des décennies de monopolisation de la représentation cinématographique du Tibet par la Chine – et par l’Occident, à l’exception du cinéma en exil de Tenzing Sonam et Ritu Sarin, qui lui ont d’ailleurs rendu un vibrant hommage.
The Economist: Pema Tseden was the founder and builder of Tibetan cinema
He did so by knowing exactly how to work round the Chinese authorities
When Pema Tseden went into film-making, driven by his childhood passion for the films he had seen on outdoor screens in his remote mountain village, he carried with him the technique of the long, unmoving take. It was the rhythm of Tibetan life. That life had not been truly represented in cinema before. In Western or Chinese films about Tibet almost everything, clothes, manners, language, even thinking, was inaccurate. He set out to change that.
Radio Free Asia: Remembering late Tibetan film directorPema Tseden’s ‘weighty’ life
The widely acclaimed filmmaker was able to depict Tibetans’ struggle as Beijing became more authoritarian.
The true weight of Pema Tseden’s death does not simply stem from his promotion of Tibetan art and culture. This is as despite how prolific the Tibetan director was, and as glowing as its critical reception, it would be hyperbole to assert his work is universally known and beloved. It alone did not have the weight of a mountain. What does is his unceasing effort to write fiction and make movies inside the PRC. And to do so during a period in which Beijing has ruled Tibet with an increasingly heavy hand, and the divide between the Tibetans and Chinese has yawned particularly wide.
This is not to assert that Pema Tseden was able to bridge such the gap between the two sides. On the contrary, all indications are that such a task is well beyond the reach of anyone. But it is to call attention to the Tibetan director’s efforts to operate in such a perilous in-between space. To stand then not as a conduit for solving the Tibet-China conflict, but rather to persist and even flourish artistically in the most contested of spaces.