By Nicola Davison
The following article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post. It is reprinted below with the permission of the author.
Filmmaker Pema Tseden
Under the flashy, big-budget productions coming out of the mainland, the quieter voices can drown. But while films such as Let the Bullets Fly rake in renminbi at the box office, a new wave of more contemplative films from Tibet are garnering critical attention both at home and abroad.
At the centre of the movement is Pema Tseden, the son of nomads and the only sibling of three to attain higher education. A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Pema Tseden, now 41, is the first filmmaker to make a feature in the Tibetan language using an all-Tibetan cast and crew, with The Silent Holy Stones (2005). His follow-up, The Search (2009), won the Grand Jury prize at the Shanghai International Film Festival while his latest, Old Dog, won the grand prize (and HK$100,000) at Tokyo Filmex last week. And his cinematographer Sonthar Gyal’s directorial debut The Sun-Beaten Path won the Dragons and Tigers Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival in October.
“They’re the first generation of filmmakers from that area,” says Jamyang Norbu, author of Shadow Tibet, essays on Tibetan politics and culture, and a blog of the same name. “For a long time we thought Tibet had become totally Sinicised, but it’s now becoming the cradle of Tibetan culture.”
While Tibet has been the subject of films – as a land of soaring skies and lush grassland in 1997’s Seven Years in Tibet, or the site of spiritual redemption in Du Jiayi’s Kora(currently in the mainland box office top 10) – this new crop of films paints a different scene.
With barren, potholed streets and squat housing snaked with scaffolding, Pema Tseden’s Tibet may jar. “My home is very different from how it was a few years ago,” he says. “Many changes have taken place. The roads used to be made of mud but now they are made of concrete. This change provides the backdrop to the story I want to tell.”
Old Dog is a story centred on an aged Tibetan mastiff. The creature has caused a rift between a father, who dresses in Tibetan garb and rides a horse to town, and a son, an alcoholic who rides a motorbike.
“The son is a pessimistic character,” says Pema Tseden. “The story is metaphorical in that it represents a worry that many of us have about a loss in traditional values. The characters themselves don’t know how to resolve this issue.” It’s a theme that surfaces in his other films: in The Search, a performance troupe is on a fruitless mission to recruit someone to play Drime Kunden – a richly symbolic character so selfless he gives away all of his possessions before plucking out his own eyes – in a traditional Tibetan opera.
These films are slow and subtle: much of The Sun-Beaten Path simply tracks the lead character stumbling along the asphalt on his way to Lhasa. The jury at the Shanghai festival said The Search was “almost a meditation in patience”.
“Censorship is extremely stifling,” says Jamyang Norbu. “One of the main problems in the autonomous region is that there’s this real effort by the Chinese to Sinicise a lot of Tibetan culture, even language. As director of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Art [in Dharamsala, India], I kept tabs on any cultural revival that was happening in Tibet towards the end of the Cultural Revolution. There was nothing, just a big black pit.
“But now there’s the first glimmering of things happening, people are singing songs again. You have a population reacting against Chinese rule in terms of filmmaking and many more art forms: music, songwriting and poetry. It’s very powerful.”