Contemporary Tibetan Cinema: Image and Voice

Gokul KS


Abstract: This paper charts the history of Tibet on screen since the beginning of the 20th century and consolidates the existing academic literature in this field of study. Until the 1990s, films on Tibet were made mainly by non-Tibetan filmmakers. Western filmmakers primarily deployed orientalist narratives of exoticisation and essentialised pacifist Tibetan Buddhist imagery in popular culture. On the other hand, Chinese-made films on Tibet from the 1950s have primarily used tropes of Tibetan “liberation” that depict Tibet as a place of “feudal” misery.  However, since the 1990s, Tibetan filmmakers from Tibet and in exile have begun to enter and transform the filmmaking scene. I use the phrase “contemporary Tibetan cinema” to specifically refer to these films that are Tibetan in image and voice, made by Tibetan filmmakers in Tibet and in exile. These films engage with questions of representation and identity that emerge from Tibet’s political history as an occupied territory and a nation in exile. The agency in visual storytelling allowed these filmmakers to capture diverse narratives from contemporary Tibetan society and express subjective voices. These voices are significant in the process of re-constructing the image of Tibet and representing life in exile.

Keywords: Contemporary Tibetan cinema, representational practices, identity construction, self-representation, exile


In popular media, the term “Tibetan cinema” indicates a mix of films about Tibet made by filmmakers across the globe. Chinese-made films on Tibet include The Serf (1963) and Red River Valley (1997),[1] and Tibet-themed films[2] made by Westerners include Lost Horizon (1937), Seven Years in Tibet (1997), and Kundun (1997). Tibetan filmmakers entered the filmmaking scene comparatively late. Those in exile entered the filmmaking scene in the 1990s, while those in Tibet entered it by the mid-2000s. One must distinguish between films that are made by Western or Chinese filmmakers and those made by Tibetan filmmakers. This differentiation, based on who produces the visual narrative, is central to understanding the politics of representation in and of films on Tibet.

As Aislinn Scofield observes, Tibet’s “cultural identity through film has been largely constructed by non-Tibetan cultures” (Scofield 106).  This process is driven partly by filmmaking shaped by orientalist colonial “discoveries” of Tibet, and partly by political propaganda about the Chinese occupation of Tibet since 1950. Tibet’s political situation as an occupied territory and a nation-in-exile are erased from these visual representations. However, contemporary films made by Tibetan filmmakers, both in Tibet and in exile, foreground the nuances of Tibet’s struggle for belonging, identity, and nationhood. I use “contemporary Tibetan cinema” to refer to these films that document stories, personal/collective memories, experiential realities, inner struggles, and the everyday lives of Tibetans. When filmmakers from Tibet and the exile community started to make films, they were challenged to respond to some of the deeply entrenched stereotypes of Tibet constructed by Western and Chinese films on Tibet.

Tibetan filmmakers have gradually shifted their focus from historical narratives to personal stories that reflect the state of contemporary society and convey diverse voices and expressions. This paper traces the evolution of contemporary Tibetan cinema and analyses the state of filmmaking in order to broaden our understanding of these aspects of Tibetan cinema. The first section of the paper briefly explores the history of Tibet-themed films since the 1920s. The subsequent sections analyse contemporary Tibetan cinema in Tibet and in exile, and consolidate the existing academic literature in the field.


One film Festival in Exile and Two Tibetan Films

My first encounter with Tibetan films was at the 10th Tibet Film Festival (TFF), held in October 2019 at Dharamsala, India. TFF was founded in 2008 after Dhondup Wangchen’s imprisonment following the making of his documentary film Leaving Fear Behind in Tibet.[3] Two films that screened at the 10th TFF – Tharlo from Tibet and Royal Café made in exile – became my entry points into understanding contemporary Tibetan cinema and filmmaking.

Pema Tseden’s film Tharlo portrays the struggles of a Tibetan shepherd living in Amdo whose life turns upside down when the Chinese state mandates him to register for an identity card. In the film, the state authorities justify their action by saying, “if you have an identity card, people will know who you are”. Tharlo, the shepherd, replies, “I know who I am, isn’t that enough?[4]” Here, Pema Tseden foregrounds the politics of identity construction as a process that delegitimizes Tibetans as non-citizens unless they align with the pre-determined idea of a “good Tibetan.” Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya points out that “every Tibetan knows what it feels like in that moment when the government makes it clear that you are one of its subjects[5]”. Tharlo captures the traumatic erasure of agency in identifying oneself as a Chinese citizen and the simultaneous attempt by the rural people to claim their own lived experience as Tibetans.

Tenzin Dasel, in her semi-autobiographical film Royal Café (co-directed by Rémi Caritey), problematizes visual representations that glorify Tibetans as spiritual, non-violent, and flawless human beings. In one scene, the lead character says, “I am tired of seeing Tibetan films only relating to Buddhism… I mean, they are all good and important, but I want to make something else[6]”. Dasel incorporates the everyday experiences of exile Tibetans in Paris, presented in fractured images and voices, to depart from pre-existing tropes that essentialize Tibetans as peaceful Buddhists. Royal Café delves into how identities are constructed in displaced spaces by sharing personal/collective accounts in the form of open-ended episodic glimpses.

Broadly, the thematic concerns shared by Royal Café and Tharlo – politics of representation and identity construction – are central to contemporary Tibetan cinema and the academic discourse on Tibetan films, which is the main focus of this paper.


Films on Tibet (1920s – 2000)

Given that the history of Tibetan cinema is currently in the process of being documented, inputs from various scholars of Tibetan cinema identify different visual productions as the pioneering works of Tibet-themed or contemporary Tibetan cinema. The following table provides a brief categorisation of this discussion.


Detail Film Reference
The earliest feature films referring to Tibet Der Tod und die Liebe / Life and Death (1919), directed by Paul Otto and Gotter von Tibet / Lebende Buddhas (1925), directed by Paul Wegener (German silent features) Michael Organ
First Tibet-themed feature film Storm Over Asia (1928), directed by Soviet filmmaker Vsevolod Illarionorich Pudovkin) Scofield 107
First Chinese film with a Tibetan theme The Gold and Silver Plain (1953), directed by Ling Zifeng Tsering, “Reflections” 270
The first Tibetan-language fiction feature film directed by a Tibetan filmmaker outside Tibet Phorpa (The Cup) (1999), directed by Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche Jamyang Norbu
(“The Happy Light Bioscope Theatre & Other Stories – Part 2”)
The first film made by a Tibetan filmmaker in Tibet Longing (1993), directed by Phagmo Tashi Barnett, “DV-made Tibet” 135
The first feature-length film made by a Tibetan filmmaker in Tibet The Silent Holy Stones (2005), directed by Pema Tseden Robin, “Cinema, Tibet” 145

Source: Compiled by author from various sources


In the first half of the twentieth century, the earliest images of Tibet were produced by European explorers, British political officers, and surveyors who travelled to Tibet and documented “exotic” aspects of Tibetan society, culture, rituals, and traditions.[7] These visual images and travelogues profoundly and enduringly influenced the popular image of Tibet. Around the 1920s, feature films based on Tibet also began to make an appearance. Scofield (107) claims that Storm Over Asia (1928), which is directed by Soviet filmmaker Vsevolod Illarionorich Pudovkin and depicts Tibetan cultural and religious life, is the first feature film on Tibet. This film is set in Mongolia, a region heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and other Tibetan traditions. The film catered to Soviet audiences and questioned the Tibetan religious practices and monastic elitism.[8] However, Michael Organ, who curated a list of ‘Tibet-related films’ produced in the twentieth century, cites two German silent features – Der Tod und die Liebe / Life and Death (1919), directed by Paul Otto and Gotter von Tibet / Lebende Buddhas (1925), directed by Paul Wegener – as the earliest feature films referring to Tibet.[9]

Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937) was arguably the most influential in creating the myth of Tibet as an exotic “Shangri La” of mystical knowledge, and in establishing standard narratives in Hollywood films referencing Tibet.[10] These narratives often portray Tibet as the last bastion of human wisdom, as an unspoiled land, and as the setting of journeys of self-discovery. In the second half of the twentieth century, the People’s Republic of China (PRC, established in 1949) pioneered a contrasting narrative of Tibet as a place of “feudal misery and barbaric practices”.[11] These films, made by Chinese directors and sponsored by the state’s propaganda wing, presented a diametrically different image of Tibet from that of the Western, romanticised, mystical “Shangri-La’ image. In the 1950s, before the 1959 March 10th Uprising in Lhasa, Chinese filmmakers had already begun to make Tibet-themed films.  The Gold and Silver Plain (1953),[12] directed by Ling Zifeng (Tsering, “Reflections” 270), is the first Chinese film with a Tibetan theme. The film is set during the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. In the film, intervention by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ends the “old Tibet” characterised by intense rivalries between various tribes. This film launched the propaganda that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) liberated Tibetans from backward living conditions. This narrative consistently recurs in Chinese filmic and political discourses to manufacture consent favouring the state’s political and economic reforms and social engineering practices in Tibet.

According to Tibetan writer and activist Jamyang Norbu, Chinese authorities produced an explicit propaganda documentary film immediately after the Lhasa Uprising in 1959 titled Peaceful Suppression of Rebellion.[13] This work is considered the first explicit propaganda film on Tibet’s “liberation”, and was soon followed by others. The 1963 film Nongnu (The Serf), directed by Li Jun, became the de facto official representation of Tibet by the PRC. In the film, the PLA saves a Tibetan speech-impaired ‘house serf’ named Jampa from his cruel owners. The film portrays Tibet as a “feudal society” beset with extreme violence and the practise of inhuman religious rituals. It was the first Chinese film with Tibetan actors, and uses Tibetan songs in the background as a legitimising rhetorical strategy. The CCP continues to screen The Serf extensively across the country, and the film’s visual narrative largely shapes ordinary Chinese people’s understanding of Tibet (Tsering, “Reflections” 273).[14] Over the next two decades, during the Mao era, similar propaganda films that centered on the cruelty of “serfdom” were made and screened across China and Tibet. Dorje Tsering cites films like Red Sun on Kha Mountains, Dawn on the Mang River, and Beside the Drichu among the “ten or so films made to represent Tibetan ‘serfs’ during the Mao years” (Tsering, “Reflections” 275). The Chinese state officially categorised these films as “minority nationality films” shǎo​shù mín​zú diàn​yǐng. Even though these films narrated the stories of “ethnic minorities”, the ethnic minorities they purported to represent never got a chance to own their voice or images in these productions.

Films made immediately after the Cultural Revolution were distinct from “old Tibet” representations but were firmly grounded within the Chinese civilizing project that guided the post-Mao “ethnic minority” policy across Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. The Horse Thief (1986), directed by acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang, is the most notable film released during this period. The film tells the fictional story of a peasant named Norbu, and is set in pre-1950 Tibet, without the “hell on the earth” imagery of The Serf. (Frangville, “Minority” 9). Instead, it constructs Tibet as a Chinese version of Shangri La, offering a mystical panacea to worldly suffering. Robert Barnett (“Secret” 279) associates this shift in visual narratives with the “root-seeking school[15]  ” (xúngēn movement) in the Chinese literary scene in the 1980s. He observes that filmmakers like Tian Zhuangzhuang and others “sought, in the aftermath of the Cultural revolution, to mine exotic and peripheral cultures within the Chinese ‘family of nationalities’ for post-Maoist experiences of self-discovery” (Barnett, “Secret” 279). Though The Horse Thief received widespread recognition in China and the West, the film, understandably, received mixed responses from Tibetan scholars. Jamyang Norbu views The Horse Thief as a “welcome improvement over previous Chinese propaganda films”, though “it was racist, at the very least[16]”. During this period, Chinese filmmakers began to work with Tibetan filmmaking crews (Barnett, “Secret” 277; Tsering, “Reflections” 279). The Secret History of Potala Palace (1989), based on Tibet-Mongol relations in the seventeenth century, had substantial Tibetan participation in its production. However, in the wake of a series of protests and demonstrations in Lhasa during 1987-1989, China banned The Secret History of Potala Palace from public screening and distribution (Barnett, “Secret” 290-292). In addition, the 1989 Tiananmen protests and the subsequent state crackdown in China halted the political and economic reforms in PRC and affected cultural productions with strict censorship rules.

When His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, interest in the Tibetan issue resurged in the West. In response, China strengthened the official propaganda about Tibet with film production. A host of new films on Tibet, including Red River Valley (1997), were made in the 1990s. Barnett (“Younghusband” 195-234) argues that Red River Valley dramatises the 1904 Younghusband expedition to Tibet to legitimise the official narrative that Tibet has been historically a part of China. The theatrical success of these films in China paved the way for large-scale commercial productions showcasing Tibet to Chinese and international audiences within a pre-determined civilising narrative.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the digital technology revolution[17] catalysed the birth of independent cinema in Tibet. Barnett locates the development of cinema in Tibet in the proliferation of unofficial digital videos made in the 2000s outside state-sanctioned spaces (Barnett, “DV-made Tibet” 120). He identifies this video production as “cultural reconstruction and collective redefinition” of and from Tibetans (Barnett, “DV-made Tibet” 122). According to Hladíková, the 1988 film Songtsen Gampo, based on the marriage between the Tibetan emperor and a Tang dynasty princess, could be the first film made with a predominantly Tibetan crew[18]. However, Barnett considers Longing – directed by Xining-based writer-director Phagmo Tashi and broadcasted in 1993 by Qinghai TV station – as the first Tibetan film made by a Tibetan filmmaker (Barnett, “DV-made Tibet” 135). Through the experiences of a young nomad, Longing explores the struggles of Tibetan society in the phase of modernisation. In short, the digital revolution, along with the marketisation that accelerated commercialised film production in China,[19] were decisive factors in the birth of independent films in Tibet.


The Emergence of Contemporary Tibetan Cinema

In the case of the Chinese and Western films on Tibet discussed above, the agency over visual narration rested with non-Tibetan filmmakers and producers; they decided how to present Tibet and Tibetans through moving images. For Tibetans, contesting these stereotypical representations meant owning the images of their stories portrayed on screen. Contemporary Tibetan cinema marks its fundamental distinction from the Tibet-themed films in this specific aspect of who gets to produce the visual narrative and how they express it. Films made by Tibetan filmmakers in Tibet and exile, starting from the 2000s, delved into questions of identity, belonging, alienation, and inner struggles in marginal spaces through personal stories of Tibetans. This section discusses the evolution of contemporary Tibetan cinema in Tibet, focusing primarily on Pema Tseden’s films and the academic literature on them.

Pema Tseden, a Tibetan writer from Amdo who started making films in the mid-2000s, talks about his experience watching Chinese films on Tibet during his childhood in an interview:

When I was a child, there were many films about Tibet. I have seen many of these films. But these films about Tibet, while I was watching them, left me wanting more. And I am not the only one. Many of my friends feel the same way. These films were about Tibetan life, but the dialogue was in Chinese. Whether it was the clothes, the customs, the manners, every element, even the smallest, was inaccurate. Because of that, at the time, I thought that later on, if someone made films with even a little knowledge of the language of my people, the culture, the traditions of my people, it would be completely different. I remember thinking that I would like to make films later on[20] (Tsering and Robin).

Pema Tseden’s aspiration to become a visual storyteller was fundamentally driven by the motive to depict the complexities and contemporary lived realities in Tibet. During his study at Beijing Film Academy, Pema Tseden made two shorts: The Grassland and The Silent Holy Stones. The former narrates the story of an elderly couple that embarks on a journey to find their missing sacred yak.[21] The Silent Holy Stones was released later as Pema Tseden’s debut feature film in 2005 (Hladíková 365). In this film, Tseden tells the story of a ten-year-old monk who returns to his village for New Year and his encounter with the newly bought television in his house. The Silent Holy Stones was shot using 35mm film and is considered the first proper Tibetan fiction feature film made by a Tibetan filmmaker in Tibet (Robin, “Cinema, Tibet” 145). The film effectively captures the tradition-modernity crisis and the resulting anxieties in contemporary Tibet through quotidian life instances. Its visual narrative contrasts with the Chinese “Tibet-related films” that are largely set in the past and seek to legitimize the CCP’s ‘liberation’ narrative. As Tibetan exile filmmaker Tenzing Sonam observes, “what came through strongly” in the film is ‘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[22] ” (Sonam, 37).

The Silent Holy Stones was the first installment in Tseden’s ‘Tibetan Trilogy’, followed by The Search (2009) and Old Dog (2012). Now, Pema Tseden had become the face of contemporary Tibetan cinema in Tibet with Tharlo (2015), Jinpa (2018) and Balloon (2019), all of which received critical acclaim at various international film festivals.[23] Today, Pema Tseden’s films are widely appreciated for their distinct aesthetic style and nuanced engagement with socio-cultural and political issues in Tibet. Tseden presents macro-level concerns of Tibetan society through micro-level representative experience of a few ordinary people. Though it is a well-established way to present complex social issues in cinematic narrations, Pema Tseden’s intervention in this context marked the beginning of a new wave of Tibetan visual storytelling. Arguably, a Tibetan filmmaker owned the agency over representing Tibetan lives through cinema for the first time. As Kamila Hladíková (351) argues, “Pema Tseden’s films… introduce the first genuine Tibetan voices to be heard in the PRC cinema, contesting the image of Tibet, its history, its culture and its people as represented in the officially supported media and mainstream popular culture.”

The politics of representation is a key concern for Pema Tseden and his contemporaries, who confront and subvert the pre-existing templates, narratives, and idealised/exoticized imaginations about Tibet and Tibetans. Françoise Robin argues that Tibetan filmmakers in Tibet “after so many decades of deprivation in self-representation” view cinema as a medium “to reverse some images put forward by non-Tibetans (be them Han Chinese, Westerners or Hong Kongese), as they until recently monopolised the representation of Tibetans and Tibet on screen” (“Performing” 37). In an interview, Tibetan filmmaker Sonthar Gyal says:


Before Pema Tseden started making films, the majority of films on Tibet were produced by outsiders using mostly non-native languages. Are these Tibetan films? This is a subject we need to think about in terms of looking at a theoretical approach for defining Tibetan film. It’s also a question in the academic world[25] (Gyal).


Besides Pema Tseden and Dorje Tsering, several other Tibetan filmmakers have made critically acclaimed films over the last two decades and contributed to the development of contemporary Tibetan cinema in Tibet.[25] The Girl Lhari, a short film directed by Rigdan Gyatso and written by Khamo Gyal, deals with the gendered tradition-modernity crisis. Rigdan Gyatso’s sophomore attempt Fierce Turquoise Mountain, made two years later, uses the “road journey trope[26]” (Berry 93) for the first time in Tibetan cinema (Barnett, “DV-made” 141). This trope later became a dominant narrative element in the films of Pema Tseden, Sonthar Gyal, and Rinchen Drolma, among other Tibetan filmmakers.

Scholarly inquiries on Pema Tseden’s films have primarily focused on the question of identity construction. Vanessa Frangville argues that Pema Tseden’s The Search challenges the mythicised representations of Tibetans and, alternatively, presents “individual and fragmented narratives to create a new collective subjectivity” (“The Search” 1). In The Search, a filmmaking crew seeks performers to act in a film adaptation of the Buddhist tale of Prince Drime Kunden. According to Frangville, the experiences of the filmmaking crew and the stories they share on their journey indicate the inherent contradictions concerning identity within the Tibetan society and “epitomise the impasse of the Tibetan nation” (“The Search” 6). Frangville observes that the personal stories of different people about their past and present form the collective memories and subjectivities of contemporary Tibetan society. Similar to Frangville’s argument, Anup Grewal interprets the image and representation of Tibet in The Silent Holy Stones and Old Dog as part of the “emergence of a heterogenous Tibetan subject” (4).[27] According to Anup Grewal, the formalistic traits of Tseden’s filmmaking style – including long takes, wide-angle shots, and filming from a fixed tripod – reveal “new ways of seeing Tibetan landscapes and lived realities” (9) where agency and subjectivity determine expression and self-representation. Instead of creating a new template or hegemonic narrative, Pema Tseden and fellow Tibetan filmmakers in Tibet have consciously embraced diverse narratives representative of contemporary Tibetan society.

According to Françoise Robin, filmmakers such as Pema Tseden and others in Tibet use various strategies to negotiate “Tibetan-ness” in their films (“Performing” 37). Specifically, Robin emphasises the aspect of “performance of compassion” embedded in Tseden’s earlier films.[28] In Tseden’s films, religion is often explored as one of the characteristics of contemporary Tibetan society, rather than as a defining trait of the community. As understood from the films, his intention to intertwine religion with the visual narratives is not aimed at presenting an idealised “spiritual Tibetan.” Robin illustrates that the Buddhist principle of compassion is seemingly invisible in everydayness. Kwai-Cheung Lo, focusing on ‘enlightenment’, argues that Tseden’s imagination of Tibet through human stories illustrates “the Buddhist wisdom that enlightenment is not necessarily something extraordinary but is inherent in the mundane life of this world and can be expressed through worldly activities” (6). Lo observes that Tseden tackles the stereotypical representations and critically examines modernity and tradition with a “Buddhist mode of reflexivity” in visual storytelling (6). Lo interprets Pema Tseden’s filmic journey as a reflection of loss, alienation, and separation associated with identity in contemporary Tibet.[29] Dan Smyer Yü also points out that “cinematic articulation of Buddhism” in Pema Tseden’s films reflects “identity-reclamation inherently linked with a felt sense of public marginality, nostalgia, and is contentious and yet entangled in the relationship between tradition and modernity among Tibetans situated in China’s modernizing landscape” (129).


Contemporary Tibetan Cinema in Exile

In exile, the visual production scene developed through the active intervention of the Central Tibetan Administration, or CTA (previously known as Tibetan government-in-exile). As a state-like institution representing the Tibetan community, the government in exile uses the visual medium for political activism that challenges the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Since its establishment in 1959, CTA has invested in institutionalising audio-visual narratives that deploy dominant tropes of the struggle for the homeland and preservation of Buddhism. These narratives are found in documentaries, short films, photo archives, performance art, and museum exhibits.

The Department of Information and International Relations (DIIR)[30] under the CTA played a significant role in producing and distributing these videos and documentaries. As Kimberly Dukes notes, in the DIIR’s early years, recordings of the Dalai Lama’s speeches, religious rituals performed by Tibetan monks, the teachings of Buddhist masters, and related videos dominated visual productions in exile[31] (10-11). The documentaries and shorts produced by DIIR promoted CTA’s official narrative of Tibetan exile politics, and Tibetan society and history. DIIR, as the major source of funding for filmmakers in exile, continues to heavily influence the Tibetan filmmaking scene. The themes and historical narratives documented through the visual productions align with the CTA’s interests. Visual productions by DIIR are available online through Tibet TV channels and social media handles that reach a wider audience, as compared to independent Tibetan films that are screened mostly at film festivals and colleges or universities.

In the 1990s, Tibetan filmmakers in exile, including Tenzing Sonam (co-directing with Indian filmmaker Ritu Sarin), Tsering Rithar, and Kesang Tseten started making independent documentary films[32] on issues and themes that were distinct from those found in CTA-DIIR productions. The Tibetan exile government’s official articulations emphasise a non-violent mode of protest which became the mainstream narrative of Tibetan resistance post-1959; very little was known about the armed struggle led by Tibetans based in Mustang. Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet, directed by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, was one of the notable films made during this period that documented the history of Chushi Gangdruk’s armed struggle against Chinese occupation and the CIA operation in Tibet.[33] Through visual narrative engagements, Tibetan filmmakers embraced such subjective interpretations of their past and present. Confrontation of, and resistance against, mainstream CTA-propagated discourse continues to be a core aspect of the independent filmmaking space in exile.

Towards the end of the 1990s, Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche’s Phorpa (The Cup)[34] was released. It is widely considered to be the first Tibetan-language fiction feature film directed by a Tibetan filmmaker outside Tibet. However, Jamyang Norbu notes that the musical drama based on the life of Songtsen Gampo, directed by the late Gungthang Tsultrim around the 1970s, could be the first Tibetan feature film made in exile, though it was never released.[35] In the 2000s, the digitisation of filmmaking technology opened up affordable film production spaces for Tibetans in exile too. In the 2003-2006 period, Tibetan cinema in exile witnessed the arrival of new voices in filmmaking and visual storytelling. Kimberly Dukes mentions Melong, a feature film directed by Tenzin Sheshi, screened at Dharamsala in 2003[36] and “billed as the first Tibetan feature film” (1-2). Around that time, two Tibetan feature films were under production in Dharamsala. Pema Dhondup’s We’re No Monks (2004) and Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin’s debut feature Dreaming Lhasa (2005), shot and produced in India, departed from the idealistic narratives of the ‘good, peaceful and spiritual Tibetan’ that dominated the Tibetan visual scene in exile. Rather, these films registered the existential angst of the young generation of Tibetans living in exile.

In 1998, when Delhi police attempted to put an end to the hunger strike protest organised by the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), Thupten Ngodup set himself on fire and shouted: “Bod Gyal lo” (meaning “Victory to Tibet”)[37] (Norbu, “Remembering”). Pema Dhondup, who was working as an independent journalist, recorded this, the first self-immolation by a Tibetan in exile, on camera. He was so deeply affected by the incident that it inspired him to make a feature film.[38] We’re No Monks narrates the story of four young Tibetans in Dharamsala who resort to violent mode of protest to attack the Chinese Embassy in India. In the film, Damdul, who eventually becomes a suicide bomber, is a reflection of late Thupten Ngodup (Matta, “Tibetan Diasporic Cinema” 168). Another Tibetan-made film, Dreaming Lhasa takes the characters and viewers through the history of the Chushi Gangdruk[39] and the traumatic recollections of political prisoners who escaped from Tibet. We’re No Monks and Dreaming Lhasa focus on themes contrasted with government in exile’s visual productions that disseminated a non-violent mode of resistance.

For contemporary Tibetan filmmakers like Tenzing Sonam, Sonam Tseten, Tenzin Phuntsog, and Tenzin Dasel, exile constitutes a daily process of negotiation. Their films reflect this difficult condition. Personal and collective memories of exile, and the ever-present struggles that the Tibetan diaspora undergoes, convey Tibetan voices and translate their feelings onto the screen. Sometimes it is the absence of the same that conveys dissent, disappointment, disillusionment, and alienation in the films. Sonam Tseten’s debut film Tsampa to Pizza, released in 2006, delves into the identity crisis faced by two Tibetans in their college days, and their inner struggles navigating Western pop-culture influences and the political struggles of being in exile[40] (K.S.). Tseten explores the themes of separation, identity, and reunion in his later films, including the shorts Pema and Settlement, derived from his personal lived experience of exile.[41] For Paris-based Tibetan filmmaker Tenzin Dasel, who made her debut with Seeds in 2009 and later directed Royal Café in 2016, the “idealised, spiritual, peaceful Tibetan” trope posed the biggest challenge in the process of visual storytelling. Adopting a non-linear and open-ended narrative style, Dasel liberates her characters from essentialist notions of Tibetan Buddhism and presents them as human beings with inherent flaws.

In the last decade, Tibetan filmmakers in exile have begun to explore more complicated topics that are considered ‘uncomfortable’ for open discussion within their community. Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin’s sophomore feature The Sweet Requiem (2018) explores the internalised trauma and harrowing memories of the journey into exile through an unexpected encounter between two characters in Majnu-ka-tilla, a Tibetan colony in Delhi. Tenzin Phuntsog’s 2018 documentary Rituals of Resistance (co-directed by Joy Dietrich) focuses on affective subjectivities in three modes of resistance against the Chinese occupation of Tibet by Tibetans: Chushi Gangdruk’s armed struggle, pacifism (as represented by the middle-way approach), and self-immolation. These strategies are acted out by three different generations of Tibetans, and are narrated through personal recollections. Recently, Tenzin Tsewang’s Dolma delved into “domestic abuse,” and Tenzin Choedon’s The Quiet Solace of Sunset narrated the coming-out story of a Tibetan teenager. These films navigate uncharted territories of contemporary Tibetan cinema.

In terms of comprehensive scholarly engagements, Tibetan cinema in exile is under-researched. As is the case for academic discourse in Tibet, few scholars of exile filmmaking focus on the politics of representation and identity. According to Kimberly Dukes, exile filmmakers engage in the “performance of cultural citizenship” in “transnational exile Tibet” through independent filmmaking (268).[42] She argues that, for the Tibetan filmmakers, it is an “attempt to establish a firm basis for identity as Tibetans” and “gain control over the representation of Tibetan identity, history, and nationalism, in ways that defy narrow representations of Tibetan identity created by others, whether by the government-in-exile or by non-Tibetans[43]” (Dukes 268). Mara Matta, on the other hand, primarily discusses the identity crisis arising from liminal spaces of exile – as expressed in films like Dreaming Lhasa (2005) by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, and Kesang Tseten’s We Home Chaps (2005) – in relation to how the filmmakers discard hegemonic visual representation of Tibet (“Liminal” 25, 29-33). Stressing how visual narratives consciously reorient their focus from imagined homeland to experiential realities in the displaced and fractured interstitial space of exile, Matta argues that “the importance of films made by Tibetan filmmakers resides in their capacity of renouncing a mystical, idealised vision of Tibet” (“Liminal” 33). Matta expands this argument by highlighting that[44] “shedding light on the complex dynamics of identity construction that characterize diasporic subjectivities, the rise of this offbeat Tibetan indie cinema challenges the mythical Tibet of the colonial imagination and projects on screen both the plights and the dreams of Tibetans in exile” (“Diasporic” 165).



Currently, Tibetan cinema in exile is in a phase of finding independent spaces to present and document Tibetans’ stories.[45] However, financial constraints, lack of opportunities, and film production and distribution challenges remain major concerns for filmmakers. Nevertheless, Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin express their optimism, saying, “We are seeing more writers and poets emerging, addressing the issues of exile, identity, memory, etc. and a younger generation of Tibetan filmmakers who are now beginning to find their voice and confidence in bringing their stories to film: we are optimistic that we will see a flowering of exile Tibetan cinema in the near future[46]” (Sonam and Sarin Interview).

Meanwhile, in Tibet, the current scenario of filmmaking, as Françoise Robin puts it, “can be divided into entertainment video films aimed at a local audience and art movies targeting international festivals, with little in between” (“Cinema, Tibet” 145). Over the last two decades, starting from the mid-2000s, filmmaking in Tibet has been redefining how we approach Tibetan social, political, and cultural life through visual narratives and documents. The collective of filmmakers led by Pema Tseden, Sonthar Gyal, Dukar Tserang, and Lhapa Gyal is spearheading a movement to claim a space for Tibetan cinema in the international filmmaking scene.

The process of reclaiming the image and voice of Tibet through cinema is a political act. For more than half a century, non-Tibetan filmmakers owned the image and voices of Tibet. Tibetan filmmakers have rightfully begun to assert their agency on self-representation in the last two decades, challenging existing narratives of their past and present. Contemporary Tibetan cinema has become a discursive space that counters hegemonic representations of Tibet and portrays the experiential dimensions of identity crisis and both personal and collective struggles of Tibetans. Popular portrayals of Tibet are still heavily influenced by Western and Chinese agendas. However, the emerging contemporary Tibetan cinema attempts to re-construct and re-imagine itself by replacing such erroneous narratives with diverse and nuanced ones. How Tibetan filmmakers critically reflect on their work – addressing for example, the question of visibility and invisibility of marginal spaces – could be one important inquiry to follow up on following this discussion on contemporary Tibetan cinema. 

Acknowledgment: The author is grateful to Dr. Sonika Gupta and Madhura Balasubramaniam for their valuable and insightful comments on the paper. Thanks are also due to editors Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani and Shelly Bhoil and the two anonymous peer reviewers of this article. 


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[1] Scholars such as Dorje Tsering, Robert Barnett, and Kamila Hladikova refer to Tibet-themed films made by Chinese filmmakers as “Tibet-related films” (Chenakshang, Dorje Tsering. “Reflections on Tibetan Film.” Tibetan Modernities: Notes from the Field on Cultural and Social Change (PIATS), edited by Robert Barnett and Ronald Schwartz, Brill, 2003, p. 270, Barnett, Robert. “Younghusband Redux: Chinese Dramatisations of the British Invasion of Tibet.” Inner Asia, vol. 14, no. 1, 2012, pp. 208, Hladikova, Kamila. “Shangri-La Deconstructed: Representations of Tibet in the PRC and Pema Tseden’s Films.” Archiv Orientální, 2016, pp. 350).

[2] The term is used in multiple articles by scholars. See, Hladikova, Kamila. “Shangri-La Deconstructed: Representations of Tibet in the PRC and Pema Tseden’s Films.” Archiv Orientální, 2016, pp. 353, Barnett, Robert. “Close Encounters of the Filmic Kind: Visualising the Chinese Arrival in Tibet.” Conflicting Memories: Tibetan History under Mao Retold, edited by Robert Barnett et al, Brill, 2020, pp. 141-203, and Wang, Caroline Yiqian. “The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom (2010).” Asian Ethnicity, vol. 22, no. 4, 2021, pp. 600.

[3] While the 2008 Beijing Olympics took place, Dhondup and co-director Golog Jigme interviewed more than a hundred Tibetans in Tibet and recorded their views about the 14th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan political struggle. Though Dhondup managed to smuggle the footage outside Tibet, anticipating a state crackdown, he was later imprisoned by Chinese authorities. After a widespread international campaign, Dhondup was finally released from prison in 2014 and he escaped to the United States in 2017 (See “Dhondup Wangchen.” Filming for Tibet.

[4] Tharlo. Directed by Pema Tseden, Icarus Films, 2015.

[5] Qin, Amy. “From a Tibetan Filmmaker and Unvarnished View of His Land.” New York Times, June 21, 2019.

[6] Royal Cafe. Directed by Tenzin Dasel and Remi Caritey, 2016.

[7] Some of these video productions are available at museums, libraries and archives like BFI Archive, Tibet Museum, Pitt Rivers Museum, and C.V Starr East Asian Library’s ‘Tibet Studies Collection’, to name a few. Tibetan filmmaker Tenzin Phuntsog restored some footage through his Tibet Film Archive Project ( For a detailed account of cinema in Tibet during British missions, see Norbu, Jamyang. “The Happy Light Bioscope Theatre & Other Stories.” Shadow Tibet, Feb 10 & Feb 22, 2010.

[8] Scofield observes that one of the purposes of the film was “to show how Mongolians were taken advantage of by the British colonialists” and “by emphasising on the pageantry of the lamas as well as the colonialists, the film questions whether Buddhism is really serving the people or serving a monastic elite” (108).

[9] Michael Organ compiled two lists of ‘Feature Films and Television Programmes featuring Tibet’ in 2005, accessed here:

[10] These films include Razor’s Edge (1946), Storm Over Tibet (1952), The Snow Creature (1954), The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957), Lost Horizon remake (1973), Tibet (1976), The Razor’s Edge remake (1984), The Golden Child (1986), Tibet (1988), Little Buddha (1993), Transatlantis (1995), Seven Years in Tibet (1997), Kundun (1997), The Saltmen of Tibet (1997), among others (Scofield 121-136; Korom 46-47).

[11] For a detailed account on the ‘serfdom’ debate in the context of pre-1959 Tibet, see, Coleman, William Monroe, IV. Writing Tibetan History: The Discourses of Feudalism and Serfdom in Chinese and Western Historiography, U of Hawai’i at Manoa, Ann Arbor, 1998. ProQuest, and Shakya, Tsering. “Tibet and China: the past in the present.” Open Democracy, Mar. 28, 2009.

[12] Scofield records the film as Gold and Silver Beach in her list of ‘Tibet-related films’ (122). Tibetan filmmaker and scholar Dorje Tsering Chenaktshang translates the Tibetan title Gser dngul thang as The Gold and Silver Plain, used in this paper (“Reflections” 270).

[13] Norbu, Jamyang. “The Happy Light Bioscope Theatre & Other Stories.” Shadow Tibet, Feb 10 & Feb 22, 2010.

[14] Tibet activists have also spoken about continued screenings of updated versions of The Serf across China (For example, see Woeser’s piece in High Peaks Pure Earth,

[15] For a detailed account on ‘root-seeking school’ and ‘minority films of 1980s’ in China, see Huot, Claire. “Colorful Folk in the Landscape: Fifth-Generation Filmmakers and Roots-Searchers.” China’s New Cultural Scene: A Handbook of Changes, edited by Claire Huot, Duke University Press, 2000, pp. 91–125, and Gladney, Dru C. “Tian Zhuangzhuang, the Fifth Generation, and Minorities Film in China.” Public Culture, vol. 8, no. 1, Jan. 1, 1995, pp. 161-175

[16] Norbu, Jamyang. “The Happy Light Bioscope Theatre & Other Stories.” Shadow Tibet, Feb 10 & Feb 22, 2010.

[17] For a detailed account, see Barnett, Robert. “DV-made Tibet: Domestic Videos, Elite Films, and the Work of Pema Tseden.” DV-made China: Digital Subjects and Social Transformations after Independent Films, edited by Zhang Zhen and Angela Zito, U of Hawai’i P, 2015

[18] Hladíková notes three Tibetans directed the film – Lobsang Tsering, Phurbu Tsering and Tendzin – and the script adapted from Huang Zhilong’s 1982 play by Li Yang and Migmar Tsering. The main narrative thread of a marriage between a Tibetan king and a Chinese princess, according to Hladiková, “is interpreted by official Chinese propaganda as a confirmation of the unity between the Tibetans and Chinese, and serves as the main argument behind the claim that Tibet has a long history of “being a part of China” (357).

[19] For a discussion on the development of the Chinese film industry in relation to “minority nationality films”, visit:

[20] Tsering, Phurwa, and Françoise Robin. “Pema Tseden, The Master.” Yeshe: A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities, vol. 1, July 2021.

[21] Cansdale-Cook, James. “Short Film Review: Grassland (2004) by Pema Tseden,” Asian Movie Pulse, Feb. 14, 2020.

[22] Sonam, Tenzing. “Quiet Storm: Pema Tseden and the emergence of Tibetan cinema.” Latse Journal, vol. 7, 2011-2012

[23] While Jinpa critically examines the tradition of revenge among the Khampas, Balloon focuses mainly on the pro-choice/pro-life tension between a couple during the period of birth control policies.

[24] “An Interview with Sonthar Gyal.” Trace Foundation, 2016.

[25] Notable films include Rinchen Drolma’s The Driver and the Lama (2009), Sonthar Gyal’s The Sun Beaten Path (2011), Gyentsu Gyatso’s The Hunter and the Skeleton (2012), Khashem Gyal’s The Valley of the Heroes (2013), Lhapal Gyal’s Wangdrak’s Rainboots (2018) and Jigme Trinley’s One and Four. Sonthar Gyal continued his film festival success with River (2015), Ala Changso (2018) and Lhamo and Skalbe (2019).

[26] Berry, Chris. “Pema Tseden and the Tibetan road movie: space and identity beyond the ‘minority nationality film’”. Journal of Chinese Cinemas, vol. 10, no. 2, Apr. 2016, p. 93.

[27] Grewal (12) explains that Pema Tseden’s films “not only attempt to create a new visual lexicon for representing Tibet but also open up spaces for multiple Tibetan subjects to determine their own meanings, without subsuming those voices into a singular narrative.”

[28] Robin analyses the complexities of “compassion” and “Tibetan-ness” in Tseden’s short The Grassland (2004) and the first two instalments of the “Tibetan Trilogy” (which also includes his short stories and films by other Tibetan directors in the discussion) to locate the agency of Tibetans in presenting their way of life through cinema (“Performing” 38-41).

[29] Lo contends that “to look for and examine Buddha, in his films, does not simply mean to find a ‘lost’ religion that has been manipulated to serve the political purposes of the Chinese state that has once oppressed all religious activities, but to search for and reflect upon an identity or a way of life that has been alienated and thrown into crisis by many forms of control and infringement to which Tibet has been subjected and with which the Tibetans attempt to negotiate” (4). He also adds, “if we understand Pema Tseden’s films about Tibet as some kind of religious and political allegory, the motif of loss (including alienation and separation) in relation to the lack of excess of belief that characterizes the age of capitalist modernity is prevailing through all his films” (4).

[30] The official website of DIIR says, “the Audio-Visual Section of the CTA produces video materials on Tibet, teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, activities and policies of the CTA and works to preserve and promote the traditional Tibetan culture and tradition. DVDs are made of parliamentary proceedings that are subsequently distributed free of cost to all the Tibetan settlements, schools, monasteries, and Tibetan organisations scattered all over India” (Source:

[31] Dukes, Kimberly. Cultural Citizenship in the Tibetan Exile: Movies, Media, and Personal Stories. Temple U, 2006, pp. 10-11

[32] Three notable documentaries made by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin in the 1990s are The Reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche (1991), A Stranger in My Native Land (1998), and The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet (1998). They started White Crane Films in 1990 (Source: Tsering Rithar’s debut film, The Spirit Doesn’t Come Anymore, was released in 1997 (Source: Kesang Tseten’s debut film Listen to the Wind was released in 1999. He later went on to make acclaimed documentaries, including Who Will be Gurkha (2012) and Trembling Mountain (2016) (Source:

[33] The film’s synopsis includes a line that reflects the visual politics: “Contrary to the generally held preconception of a deeply religious and peace-loving people, the Tibetans fought a long and bloody – though ultimately, unsuccessful – guerrilla campaign. They were aided in their efforts by an unlikely ally, the CIA” (Source:

[34] The Cup, directed by Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche, 1999.

[35] Tsultrim was the head of Tibetan Settlements in Clement Town (Dehradun, India) and founder of Amdo Dance and Drama Society (Norbu, “The Happy Light Bioscope”).

[36] CTA. “Movie talk.”, Mar. 15, 2003. Source:

[37] Norbu, Jamyang. “Remembering Thupten Ngodup.” Shadow Tibet, May 12, 2008.

[38] Matta, Mara. “Tibetan Diasporic Cinema: Traces of Memory, Visions of Hope.” Resistant Hybridities: New Narratives of Exile Tibet, edited by Shelly Bhoil, Lexington Books, 2020, p. 168

[39] For a comprehensive historical account of Chushi Gangdruk, see McGranahan, Carole. Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War. Duke University Press, 2010.

[40] K.S, Gokul. “Sonam Tseten’s ‘Pema’ and ‘Settlement’: Vignettes of Separation and Waiting in Exile.” Tibetscapes, Sep. 11, 2021.

[41] In 2016, Sonam Tseten co-directed Pawo with German filmmaker Marvin Litwak.  Pawo is based on the real-life story of Jamphel Yeshi, who set himself on fire during a protest in the background of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to India in 2012 [See, “Jamphel Yeshi passes away.” Phayul, Mar. 28, 2012.].

[42] Kimberly Dukes looks at how “media produced or participated in by Tibetan exiles” including films and oral narratives “shapes and sustains a sense of belonging to a Tibetan “nation” that actually floats above nation-state borders.” She argues that “these productions and participations constitute practices of cultural citizenship in that exile transnation” (Dukes iii-iv). Her thesis in part documents the history of Tibetan cinema in exile in its initial phases, as her work is based on ethnographic fieldwork in the early 2000s, when she was part of the film production crew of Pema Dhondup’s We’re No Monks (2004).

[43] Dukes, Kimberly. Cultural Citizenship in the Tibetan Exile: Movies, Media, and Personal Stories. Temple U, 2006.

[44] “Questions of identity performativity and subjectivity construction” (Matta, “Karma” 291) in the visual representations of exilic Tibetan filmmakers is central to Matta’s analysis of Tashi Wangchuk and Tsultrim Dorjee’s debut feature Two Exiled Brothers (2006). She looks at how the filmmaking and narrative approach that blends with Bollywood templates creates a distinct and complicated representation of the lives of Tibetans in exile in the contemporary context. She refers to such ‘hybridised’ films as “Tibetan masala” or “Thinglish films” (Matta, “Karma” 300).

[45] Ama Khando (2019) directed by Dhondup Tsering, Red Mask (2019) by Kalsang Rinchen, Dolma (2020) by Tenzin Tsewang, Yarlung (2020) by Kunsang Kyirong, The Quiet Solace of Sunset (2021) by Tenzin Choedon are some of the notable films by Tibetan filmmakers in exile that sparked conversations for their distinct approach to present and interpret subjectivities of life in exile. Some well-received documentaries made by Tibetan filmmakers in the last two decades include The Sun Behind the Clouds (2008) by Tenzing Sonam & Ritu Sarin, Bringing Tibet Home (2013) by Tenzin Tseten Choklay, Light a Candle (2019) by Tenzin Kalden, among others.

[46] Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin – Interview with the author, Jan. 30, 2019.


Gokul K.S is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at IIT Madras researching Visual Politics of Contemporary Tibetan Cinema and Filmmaking in Exile. Gokul co-curates Tibetscapes and also writes about cinema, filmmaking, visual politics and aesthetics. (Read more: