ISSN 2768-4261 (Online)
Interview by Tenzin Dickie
This interview was conducted with filmmaker and documentarian Geleck Palsang at a café in New York City in early May.
Geleck Palsang entered the Tibetan film scene with his wonderful short Prayers Answered about kids from a Balti village (from Baltistan, at the border of India, Pakistan and Tibet, where the people are Tibetic and Muslim) who attend the Tibetan Children’s Village school in Leh. His 2017 film The Buxa Lama, about the first Tibetan refugee camp in India, retrieves an important history of the first Tibetan settlements in India.
His 2019 film, a documentary feature called Fathima the Oracle, tells the extraordinary story of a Muslim woman who gets possessed by a Buddhist spirit. His most recent film is a documentary about Jetsun Pema, educationist and founder of the Tibetan Children’s Village schools, the best Tibetan school system in exile.
Mass secular education for Tibetan children has been one of the great achievements of Tibetan exile, and the figure at the center of this social revolution is Jetsun Pema, the younger sister of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Amala – The Life and Struggle of Dalai Lama’s Sister documents her moving and inspiring story, and the story of TCV. I saw Amala at a screening held at the Tibetan community hall in Jackson Heights, and thought it a powerful testament to how the first generation of Tibetan refugees struggled to make exile livable for the rest of us.
The film screening turned into a celebration of Jetsun Pema and the Tibetan Children’s Village, with audience members during the Q&A offering testimonials to this important institution. Indeed both Geleck Palsang and I are products of TCV and personally appreciate the significance of TCV to Tibetan society.
Over a Matcha Latte (mine) and a Caramel Latte (his), I asked Geleck Palsang about how he first got started, his early jobs in film production, and the challenges of filmmaking in exile.
Geleck Palsang in Forest Hills, NYC. 2023. Photo by Tenzin Dickie
Tenzin Dickie: Can you tell us a little bit about your personal background.
Geleck Palsang: I was born in Ladakh in north India. My home was in Leh, and I went to the Tibetan Children’s Village school in Ladakh until the tenth grade. Then with the rest of my class, I went to the Tibetan Children’s Village School in Bylakuppe, south India, for the next two years until graduation. After that, I went to Delhi for college but I didn’t actually study film in college. It was only later, when I did my Master’s degree at a film academy in Noida, that I studied filmmaking. I worked in various private film productions for a while. Then I came to New York to the Millennium Institute to do a directorial course. Following that experience, I went back to India and worked in more Indian film productions.
Tenzin Dickie: Do you remember the first film that had an impact on you? What was the first film that really struck you? I am curious about where your interest in film started.
Geleck Palsang: To be honest, I didn’t have any great interest in films growing up. At the time, of course, I also didn’t have much access to films. Now and then, I would watch some Hindi TV and some Hindi films, and once in a while I’d get to watch a Hollywood production. But overall, film as such wasn’t something that I had much interest in or passion for or indeed awareness of back then. It definitely wasn’t like I was mad about films. What I was really interested in back then was still photography.
I had an uncle who had a side interest in photography, who loved taking photographs and took a lot of photos. He had a good camera. So with his camera, I also started to taking photographs and I grew to love photography. It was only later in college that I began to be interested in art films. It was only then that I really became aware of the independent cinema scene. And once I began to be aware of that work, and I really started watching these art films, I grew to love them. And my interest in still photography then transferred to film. Film totally captured my interest. And I realized, if I am really interested in this, then to learn it I need to actually study it at school.
When you ask about a particular film that really struck me for the first time, I don’t really remember any specific ones from back then, but there was one film from Tibet that shines bright in my memory. It was a black and white fiction film from Tibet, not full length but not a short either, and it was about a village in Tibet. One of our family friends who went to Tibet brought the VHS cassette tape back with them. Now that I think about it, it was probably made by a Chinese director. It was really beautifully made, beautifully shot, and I just couldn’t stop watching it. I watched it again and again at home. I watched it so many times that I wore about the cassette. Later when I learned more about filmmaking, I thought perhaps that filmmaker had been influenced by the Japanese director Kurosawa. I have since looked for this film many times but I can never find it.
Tenzin Dickie: So in a way it was your interest in still photography that then led the way to your interest in filmmaking. What kind of photographs were you taking back then?
Geleck Palsang: I started out with landscape photography. Because I was growing up in Ladakh, and the landscape of Ladakh is just a spectacular landscape. It’s a really unique place. You know, even the weather in Ladakh changes like three or four times in a single day. If you stand in one spot and you take a photograph at four different times of the day, you get four totally different photographs. I started out taking photos of the landscape and then slowly shifted to portraits. I would take the photos and then take them to the shops to develop them. At first I used normal reels but later I began to use slides as the color variation, the projection, and the quality was better.
Tenzin Dickie: Can you talk more about that transition and journey from being interested in film to wanting to be a filmmaker?
Geleck Palsang: When I realized that I was interested in film, I knew I had to study this. But even when I was studying film and filmmaking, it wasn’t like I thought, oh now I am going to make a film. Truthfully, even after studying, it didn’t feel like I knew all that much about filmmaking. I certainly didn’t have any confidence that I could make a film.
It was only later, as I began working on Indian and European film productions that I really began to learn and understand filmmaking, and I became passionate about filmmaking. I worked as a production assistant, and on the sets, saw how a film is actually made. There were quite a few European productions especially that wanted to make films on Buddhism or Tibet and because they can’t actually film in Tibet, the next best thing was to film in Ladakh and Spiti. How does an entire film production work? How does one actually go ahead and make a film? How do you shoot scene by scene? Working with these productions, and seeing the shoots, seeing the whole thing, that was where I really learned filmmaking.
Tenzin Dickie: Tell me about these film production jobs.
Geleck Palsang: There was a Tibetan art director who told me that there’s a European film production happening in Ladakh that needed people. That was my first job in a big production. They made me an art assistant, in the art department. The film was about a Pandit, about one of those Indian spies who pretended to be pilgrims and went to Tibet during the British Raj to spy and gather information. My second job with also with a European production. Of course, these productions had their own crew that they brought in, but they always need a local crew as well. I actually got to be assistant director on that job, which was a big deal for me. It was a movie based on the life of the French explorer Alexandra David-Neel, and it was a fiction film. Most of that film was shot in Ladakh; all of the Tibet part was shot in Ladakh.
Tenzin Dickie: How did your short film Prayers Answered about Turtuk happen?
Geleck Palsang: By that time I was already in film school. When I went to Ladakh on a holiday and heard about these students from this Balti village called Turtuk who were going to TCV because there was no good school in their remote village, I knew it was a really good story and I wanted to document it.
This was in the summer, and you can’t just go to Turtuk, because Turtuk was a very sensitive area. It’s right at the border of Baltistan, which is part of Pakistan. Turtuk was one of several Balti villages that the Indians took from Pakistan in the war of 1971, so it was a sensitive and closed area. At that time, you could only go as far as Nubra and you couldn’t go beyond. Now they have opened up the area and you can go to Turtuk with permission, but back then it was closed.
In the winter, in March, TCV usually sends a bus to the village to pick up the kids, and my plan was to go along with the bus, to pretend that I was also coming along to pick up the kids. But what happened was that TCV cancelled the bus. They said they couldn’t send the bus! Because there weren’t enough kids so TCV didn’t think it was worth it to send a bus all way out to Turtuk to pick up the kids for the school year. I had this whole plan to film and shoot this, and to do that, I needed the bus to go to Turtuk! I had to figure out something. So I offered to the school administrators that I would pay for the bus. They agreed, and I went with the bus. It was me, a Ladakhi friend, and the bus driver.
And when we got to Turtuk, the villagers were so happy. They kept saying, please ask the school to take more children. TCV only took ten, and they wanted to send twenty! There were no good schools in Turtuk. Besides that, after the kids have spent a year at TCV, the parents notice a good change in their child, some kind of improvement, so they all wanted to send their children to TCV.
The parents had one request for TCV; they wanted their kids to learn Arabic script. They wanted the kids to learn the Balti language, and they wanted the kids to be able to read the Muslim texts in Arabic, so they asked TCV to teach the children Arabic as well. Now TCV of course doesn’t have an Arabic teacher! So what they did was they hired a teacher from Baltistan to teach Arabic to these kids at TCV.
Tenzin Dickie: Can you talk about your filmmaking influences?
Geleck Palsang: When I am choosing a film to watch, I usually end up choosing an Iranian film. When I think about why I want to watch Iranian films, I can’t really point to this and that, but I love watching Iranian films. And the Iranian director Jafar Panahi is perhaps the director who has influenced me the most. He has made many great films but one that’s really close to my heart is Offside. A fiction film made in the style of a docudrama, it’s a film about soccer. It’s about how Iranian girls can get into soccer, and it’s a great movie. I think one major challenge he faced in making this film was figuring out how to shoot a fiction film with a live audience. How do you handle the difficulties of shooting with a live audience, instead of only constructing sets? The way he handles these different obstacles is so interesting. And then, you know, he deals with the difficulties of living in Iran with all its problems. In fact, he was put in present recently. The Iranian situation has all of these difficulties and challenges. And you know, the Tibetan situation too is filled with all these problems and difficulties and challenges, there are all of these different obstacles that we face as a society. So it seems to me, in some ways, we are similar, which is also interesting to me.
Tenzin Dickie: Tibetan filmmakers have a difficult job. Tibetan directors often need to be their own producers as well. From A to Z, Tibetan filmmakers have to do it all—how do you pull it all together?
Geleck Palsang: I think perhaps back in the day, there must have been more funding for Tibetan films. Whether you wanted to do something about Tibet or about Buddhism, it seems that there was a fair amount of funding. But these days, there’s been so much change geopolitically and there’s a lot less interest internationally for Tibet and consequently a lot less funding for Tibet. The older filmmakers talk about this actually. They observe that there used to be more funding for Tibet, and that the funding is really drying up now. Of course, even without funding, we still have to make films. But how do you do that? How can you make a qualify film without funding?
If you invest your money in a Tibetan film, you won’t really get your money back. It’s not an investment as such. So, will you still put your money into the project? Will you support the film? Often it just becomes a matter of support. A film is a funny thing actually. When you have the right story, sometimes it can just work out. The Tibetan filmmaking community in exile is very small, but the great thing is there is so much solidarity. It’s a very close-knit community and we all help each other. If someone is making a film, everyone else will pitch in and support in whatever ways possible and help them to finish the project. We all experience the same obstacles and there’s very few of us, so there’s a strong bond among this small Tibetan film community and we all support each other.
Actually, to be honest, what I find even more difficult than making the film is the associated publicity and promotion stuff. After film screenings, when I have to do the Q&A—I find that very challenging. Because people ask you all kinds of questions, and they ask you about the Tibet issue. And these are big questions. That’s stressful, because I think, I have to answer well because these are questions about Tibet, but at the same time I’m not quite sure how to answer them. At that moment, you have become a representative for Tibet in some ways. Answering questions about Tibet feels like a big responsibility.
Tenzin Dickie: You are a documentarian. Do you have a preference for making documentaries versus fiction films? Why documentaries in particular?
Geleck Palsang: From the very beginning, my plan was always to make a fiction film. That’s what I’ve always wanted. I have these two stories that I want to make, and actually I am still in the process of editing and revising them. I thought I was done with my scripts and then I showed it to Tenzin Tsetan Choklay and I get his feedback, and it turns out that I still have more work to do on the script!
The truth is, to make a fiction film, you really have to be very brave. You need a lot of courage, and you need to be able to go up to people and ask them for funding. That’s my problem. I haven’t been able to ask for funding. That’s why I still haven’t been able to make these films, for lack of funding.
Tenzin Dickie: Actually, your documentaries are like feature films. Both Fathima and the Turtuk film, for example. They are like feature films in that they tell a gripping story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Geleck Palsang: This is something I feel quite strongly about. I really don’t want any narration in my films, in my documentaries. You know, the background narration that’s usually an element of documentaries. I prefer not to have that at all if possible. Perhaps that’s an influence from Iranian films. I don’t like the third person coming in to tell the story, to explain. I don’t want the narration. I want the characters themselves to tell their own story. And even if the character really doesn’t want to tell their story, I would rather the situation simply shows it or they tell it in whatever way they can. I think so far I have managed pretty well without narration.
Tenzin Dickie: What makes a story interesting to you? How do you decide what the story is, and how do you decide where it ends?
Geleck Palsang: In everyone’s life, there are such different stories, so many different things that happen. And what strikes me about a story is, how can another person view this story, in what other possible ways? What’s another lens? When a story can be seen very differently from different angles, when there’s something different and thought-provoking, that’s interesting to me. It has to make the audience think in some way.
When I thought about making the story about Fathima, the oracle, I wanted to follow her, because the character is interesting and because her case is different. A Buddhist spirit possess a Muslim girl in a village in north India. Even the way she gets possessed, which is once or twice a year around the significant dates, that was different. So during those periods of possession I covered her, and I ended up covering and following her for about six years. And in the beginning, I didn’t know what story will emerge. I was still in the dark about that. I just thought I’ll follow her and maybe something interesting will happen, because she’s so fascinating. After two years of following her, in the third year, a story emerged. And you know, this is her life, and she has a story about her life, and as I am following her, I am making a story about her. So I had to think, am I being honest with her? Am I being fair to her? My story is important, but her story of her life is important to her as well. Especially in terms of deciding where the film will end, I had to be very thoughtful about it, because the end of the film has to be a proper end to the narrative but at the same time it has to be truthful to her life, which goes on.
Tenzin Dickie: How did the Ama Jetsun Pema movie happen?
Geleck Palsang: TCV asked me to make this film actually. I had made some small fundraising clips for them believe. They said Ama Jetsun Pema is now 80 years old, and it would be good to have a film about her life. When they asked me that, I felt I had to do it. There was no direction or notes on what kind of movie, so I actually had a lot of freedom. At the same time, there was no budget, which was a challenge. That meant I had to go and raise the funding myself.
Tenzin Choeying (our mutual friend who is another TCV alumni) said this documentary has to be made and that it has to be made well, because this can help TCV fundraise for its schools later. He thought it was important to have a movie that really tells the story of Jetsun Pema and TCV in an intimate way. So Choeying and his whole batch funded the film from the beginning. All the funding came from former students of the Tibetan Children’s Village.
As for Jetsun Pema, we call her “Amala” for mother, but 90 percent of the people don’t actually understand the work she has done and what she has achieved. In her life, she has had privilege of course but she has also made enormous sacrifices. She has done a huge amount of work not just for the Tibetan Children’s Village but also for the Tibetan people. I hope I have been able to show that in the film.
Geleck Palsang is a Tibetan filmmaker and documentarian. He is known for The Buxa Lama (2017) and Fathima the Oracle (2019). His most recent film is Amala – the Life and Struggle of Dalai Lama’s Sister.
Tenzin Dickie is a writer, translator and editor. She is editor of Old Demons, New Deities: Twenty One Short Stories from Tibet, and The Penguin Book of Modern Tibetan Essays.
© 2021 Yeshe | A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities