Pema Tseden, The Master

Interview by Phurwa Tsering and Françoise Robin

(Translated from French into English by Lamo Dorjee )


Pema Tseden is the leading Tibetan filmmaker. A director who has also published novels and short stories in Tibetan and English, he writes his own screenplays. Among his beautiful and provocative films are The SearchOld Dog, and Tharlo.

In February 2019, Pema Tseden presented his new film Jinpa at the International Asian Film Festival in Vesoul. The movie also launched at theaters in Paris. This interview was conducted in Amdo Tibetan, and edited and subtitled into French for the DVD of Jinpa released in France. It has been edited for clarity and length.




Phurwa Tsering: I’m going to start by asking you a brief background of your life; your early education, and then your film studies, your debut in film, etc. Could you introduce yourself briefly?

Pema Tseden: Well, it will be hard to be brief. I mean, it’s a long story. I was born in a small village in Amdo. After Tibetan language primary and middle school, I went to a Tibetan language high school. So I was educated in the Tibetan language from early childhood. Then I went to a teacher’s school in the prefectural capital. After graduation, I returned to my village to work as a teacher. That lasted four years. Then I passed the entrance examination of the Tibetan language section of the Northwest University of Nationalities. I got my university degree there and I was hired at Tsolho prefecture in the administration, for 4 years. Then I returned to the same university. I majored in Tibetan-Chinese translation. During my third year, I went to the Beijing Film Academy. This opportunity was given to me by the Trace Foundation which financed my studies. I loved cinema since I was a child. At the Beijing Film Academy, I studied directing and screenwriting for the first two years. Then, after graduation, I directed The Silent Holy Stones, my graduation film. Then I went back to school at the Academy. Back in the directing section, I studied directing. It lasted three years. Since then, I have been professionally involved in the film industry.

I am also a writer. I write short stories in two languages: Tibetan and Chinese. Since 2002, and my time studying at the Beijing Film Academy, I have been studying film. And I also write literature. I pursue both interests at the same time. I have directed six films in the Tibetan language so far. Jinpa is my sixth feature film in the Tibetan language. I am currently finishing the post-production of my seventh film. I continue to write many short stories. And I keep on working as a translator. That’s it in a nutshell.


Phurwa Tsering: You are fluent in Tibetan and Chinese. You have expertise in a range of fields. However, you have given up the other fields of expertise. You were a teacher and then a translator. Can you explain the reason why you gave up teaching and translating, and tell us how filmmaking is special for you. How did you get the idea to go to film school? What made you say “I’m going to be a director”? Where did that come from?

Pema Tseden: When you study Tibetan in the Tibetan areas, the choice of specialisation is very limited. I went to school and was educated in Tibetan including during primary school, secondary school, and university. The only specialisation available was the Tibetan language. There were no others. So, at university, it’s the same: my major was Tibetan, which only opens up to Tibetan. If you don’t study Tibetan, you can study any subject, like literature.  If you study literature, or Chinese, or other languages, it’s totally different. Afterward, there are a lot of opportunities. In Tibet, there is only one pathway with the Tibetan language. Once you’re there, you’re stuck in a few fields: astrology, poetry, grammar, and so on. That’s all you can study. And once you have graduated from Tibetan, your choice of professional career is extremely limited. For example, once I graduated, I had to work in literature or in translation. That’s about it. In my case, and in the case of many graduates like me, you could be an editor for a newspaper and work in publishing, or you could be a translator in the administration. Other fields were out of reach. So, when I was a kid, I loved cinema, but the passion alone did not provide any opportunity to study film. And there is the problem of geographical origin. I come from a tiny village in Qinghai. To go to Beijing, to Shanghai, to study film as a specialty in a professional way, was impossible. It was complicated to even think about it. But this passion for cinema has never left me throughout my life. As a child, I used to go to the movies in the village. In the capital of the prefecture, in the university town, the passion for cinema has never left me in my life. So first of all, there is my passion for cinema.

Moreover, 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. These two reasons led me from the Northwest University of Nationalities, in the second year of the “translation” major, to the Beijing Film Academy where I had an opportunity to go. In this institute specialising in film, I learned about cinema, made a short film, and gradually became a professional filmmaker. That’s how it happened.


Phurwa Tsering: In the Chinese environment, at the Beijing Film Academy, what were the greatest difficulties you faced? You were a Tibetan student. Arriving for the first time in a big city, studying there, in daily life, customs, etc. what was most challenging?

Pema Tseden: During my studies, I did not encounter any particular difficulties: the subjects, the language used by the teachers… It was in Chinese, but my level of Chinese was decent. Since university, I could write short stories in Tibetan and Chinese. So at the university, books on cinema or lectures in Chinese were not a problem for me. In these areas, I didn’t suffer too much. However, in terms of my passion, cinema—I was at the Beijing Film Academy. I had watched a lot of films as a child in the village, in the city, and in the prefectural capital. Then in the city, at the university, I had seen many films. But few of them were “professional”, or “real films”. I had to learn the history of cinema, the history of Chinese cinema, the history of world cinema, and also the different stages of the history of cinema and the great films that made history. Yes, I had seen almost nothing. The films that I had seen were not good films that count in the history of cinema, nor were they films that were considered classics. They were commercial or comedy films. I had seen very few that belonged in the history of cinema.

At the Academy, in the beginning, when the teacher mentioned a film, when he gave an example: “This film tells this, it symbolises that”, “such a film is a classic in the history of cinema…,” when he said such things, for me it was very difficult to understand. I had never seen any of these films. So in my first year, I watched a lot of films. The Academy is a very special place. There is a film library. It contained mostly films that were unknown to me. I spent a lot of time there watching a ton of films. You also had to have knowledge about cinema. You always had to watch more. At that time, it was difficult.  Then I made films. I’ve talked about it a bit today. For my first film, The Silent Holy Stones, I didn’t have professional actors. I thought that for the plot of the film, for its style, which is realistic, and for other reasons, amateur actors were perfect. So that was one reason to have amateurs. The other reason was that professional actors, especially at that time, especially in Amdo, were very rare. People trained in professional acting, with good filming experience, did not exist. In Lhasa, there were people trained for that. Like the Tibet Autonomous Region theatre group. They have been trained in Shanghai, or elsewhere, in acting. They can act in films, in theatre, and they have a good level.

But in Amdo, we don’t have that. So when I shoot my films, I have a lot of difficulties with actors. And then, in Tibet, cinema is something new. Cinema does not exist in Tibetan culture. There is no market, no film industry. So finding funding is very complicated. Making a film is not like writing literature or poetry. You have to have secure funding. But in Tibet, the market and the economy are not very developed. It is very difficult to find funding for film in Tibet, to make quality films in Tibet. So I started by teaming up with some friends. We had to face many difficulties. And also, in China, filmmakers also face the problem of film authorisation. Tibet is filled with brilliant stories. In the beginning, you don’t know whether it’s a historical film, a fairy tale, a realistic story because Tibet is just full of excellent stories. It’s a real reservoir. But not everything is allowed. When you are involved in cinema, you realise that little by little. At first, you think, “there, that’s no problem”. You can pick your script like that. It’s easy. But then problems arise.


Phurwa Tsering: You have already answered my next question. It concerns the difficulties of making films in the Tibetan environment, as a director. And then also, the problems of finding financing. And obtaining the authorisations to make the films. Are there more particular difficulties?

Pema Tseden: I mentioned it—the problem of professionalism. You need professionals. The process involves bringing together a lot of people to work together. This is not an activity that relies on just two people, a director, and a scriptwriter. You have to bring a lot of people together, and they all have to be professionals. In the Tibetan area, the film is a new professional field. So the basics are not there. Chief operator, sound recordist, set designer, actors, etc.—these professionals are extremely rare. They are really very rare. Personally, my initial goal was to bring together people who were familiar with Tibetan culture and customs, who have some skills or background in filmmaking to make films. Maybe we could manage to render Tibetan life with some depth. But it was very difficult. For example, the sound recordist. Every single word of the actors contains various information, feelings, or intonation. Someone who doesn’t know Tibetan will find it very difficult to grasp the subtleties and show them. But if he speaks Tibetan, if he knows Tibetan customs, Tibetan manners, he will grasp the subtleties of the dialogue.

So if a sound recordist is professional and speaks Tibetan, if he knows the customs, when he picks up the sounds, the dialogue, everything in the words of the characters, he can appropriate that information. Depending on whether a sound recordist understands Tibetan or not, it is not the same. So for me, the problem is this. In the future, for my next productions, I need film professionals. In all areas: sound, image, set, I want professionals. So, how can I put it? In any profession, and especially in art, you need a predisposition. For example, to learn drawing, you need a gift cultivated since childhood. Without this gift, it is very difficult to succeed in this profession. So we made a plan, with a few passionate people I knew who had a gift, to go together to Beijing, to train each in our own specialty. That’s how it worked. For example, with people like Sonthar Gyal, or Dukar Tserang, we went together to Beijing to study at the time with this purpose. And now they are making their own films. They first aimed at a particular specialty, and studied it. And then little by little they acquired film knowledge, filming opportunities, developed solid experience, and they started directing.


Phurwa Tsering: The films you have made, which genre do they belong to? You talked a bit about it, you said you wanted to show the real-life of Tibetans in your films. I have seen a couple of your films (Tharlo and Jinpa). Are most of your films similar in form and content? Are there any differences between them? Are they all the same?

Pema Tseden: There are differences of course, but what do they have in common? The common points are difficult to define. One of them could be the will to show real life. To have a strong link with reality. Before, films did not show reality. My literary writing is quite different. In fiction, the absence of a link with reality, or even magic realism, that is something I have practised a lot. But in cinema, for many reasons, my films so far have all been very linked to reality. Another important feature is to reveal something about the overall situation of Tibetans in this contemporary society. Yes. That is a characteristic of my films. Yes. For example, in The Silent Holy Stones, I show, through one Tibetan, one or two Tibetans, the situation of many Tibetans. The global situation of Tibetans. Between The Silent Holy Stones and Tharlo, what has changed? My films show an individual Tibetan, a single Tibetan, his situation and his status. And then, on the other hand… how can I put it? The individual changes. Indeed, through the destiny of one or two individual characters, I show how the overall situation of Tibetans in this society has changed.


Phurwa Tsering: Thank you. This is my last question. There are all sorts of difficulties in making a film. But funding is one of the biggest. You have made many films. If it is not confidential of course, where does the funding come from? Tibetans like your films and support you, individually or collectively. Do they give you donations? Do organisations help you?

Pema Tseden: Including my current film, I have made seven films. Each film has had its own funding. “The Silent Holy Stones” is my first film, and I was a beginner director at the time. People asked me what the film was about, what my level of cinema experience was. No one knew anything about me. I had very little funding, even though I had previously made a short film that had won many awards and was very much appreciated by professionals. This first short made me known a bit and some people financed my first feature film or were interested in it. So I got some funding from China. And then my friend, a Tibetan, and a few friends also contributed some funds. And I was able to make the film. The second and third films were the same. For The Search or Old Dog, friends helped me: Gangzhun, Dolha, who was associated with us at the time, and who is now a university professor. They all helped me and I was able to make the film. Then my films started to be known. They were well received. And so there were more people willing to finance me. Then, for almost all the following films from Tharlo onwards, the funding came from China. And then… Yes. As far as Tibet is concerned, whether it’s organisations or groups, a lot of people offer to support me. But even if they want to, raising funds and capital to finance a film, it’s very difficult for a Tibetan or when the funds come from Tibet. To make a film you need funds. But very few people have the money and the courage to do it. That’s right. Coming from Tibet, there are not many. Tibetans generally appreciate my work. Take for example Tharlo. In 2016, it was screened in China. Tibetans watched it, they said, “A Tibetan made a film!”. It was the first Tibetan film shown on the screens in China. It was an important thing. A matter of pride for the Tibetans who, individually and collectively, had supported me a lot.


Françoise Robin: Your films differ a lot from one another. Sometimes you might say to yourself: “I’m satisfied with this, I’m going to make it again”. Do you ever feel that way? Or do you always want to explore a new style, to always be new?

Pema Tseden: I’ve already talked about it a little. There are many differences between the writing of my films and my fiction. In literature, I rely on my life, the stages of my existence. Whether it’s the content or the form, you can see very clearly how I have evolved. What I wrote in the 1980s, the themes I dealt with, or in the 1990s, and the same for the 2000s: it’s very clear how my writing and themes have evolved. But in cinema, the possibilities for innovation are reduced. There are many instances, as I said, many instances of authorisation. If you feel like writing something, a short story, you can write it straight away. But if you want to make a film, there’s a story you love, you send the script, but you sometimes don’t have the power to make it happen. There is the authorisation process and the search for financing. I speak from experience. I’ve written a lot of scripts. For example, I wrote the script for “Jinpa” before “Tharlo”. I had wanted to make this film for a long time. But I didn’t get permission to shoot. And I did get permission to shoot “Tharlo”. So I shot “Tharlo” before “Jinpa”. So it’s very difficult to say. In the future, I want to try new things. But whether it’s in terms of form or content, I can be innovative within the same genre. I want to make films like that.


Françoise Robin: The film Jinpa is based on two short stories. One written by you, one by another writer. I would like to know the order in which you work. Did you write the short story “The Killer” or the other one “I killed a Sheep”?

Pema Tseden: The other story [“I Killed a Sheep”].


Françoise Robin: When you were writing “I Killed a Sheep”, did you have plans to make a film of it? What was the time span between writing the story and making the film? Secondly, when you write short stories, do you think of a possible connection with the cinema?

Pema Tseden: This is how it happened. A long time ago, I had read the short story written by Tsering Norbu, “The Killer” in a literary magazine. I found it very compelling at the time. The story is about an assassin. There are many stories about assassins, but this one is very different. That’s why I liked it so much. I thought it would be good to make a film about it later on. Then several years went by. And then I wrote my own short story: “I Killed a Sheep”. It’s been quite a while too. But when I was writing it, I didn’t think that later on, I could make a film out of it. My other short stories are the same. The story came to me, I felt the emotions, and then I wrote it quickly. When I adapted Tsering Norbu’s short story “The Killer,” the script was too short. It was only 5 or 6,000 characters. For a screenplay, you need 30 to 40,000. So in terms of content or length, it was not enough for a screenplay. I thought of my own short story, “I Killed a Sheep.” It has many similarities with Tsering Norbu’s story. Both take place on the road. So I mixed the two stories together and wrote the script. It was like that. To write a short story and then say to myself, “I could make a film out of it”, I don’t think about that. Short stories work in accordance with principles and literary feelings, and that’s what guides my writing. But writing while telling myself that later I will adapt it to the cinema, no, I don’t operate like that. But perhaps the two influence each other. I’ve studied a lot of films. I’ve seen a lot of films. So I guess when I write short stories, it influences me a little bit. In the same way, when I make a film, I am nurtured by my reading. And by my experience as a writer. I have written a lot. And when I shoot, it has an influence. I think it has an influence.


Françoise Robin is a Professor of Tibetan studies at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisations (INALCO), Paris. Through her studies of the contemporary Tibetan language literary and film scene, complemented by regular fieldwork in Tibet, she investigates social changes in contemporary Tibetan society as well as emerging trends in literature and cinema.


Phurwa Tsering is a Tibetan student at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisations (INALCO), Paris.

Lamo Dorjee was born in Amdo and was later predominantly educated in France. She has a Masters degree in International Relations from Warwick University (UK) and is currently based in Paris (France).