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The news of Pema Tseden’s untimely passing earlier this year triggered an outpouring of grief and tributes from Tibetans both in Tibet and in exile. Seeing images on the internet of large crowds congregating at Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple to pay their last respects served as a poignant reminder of his reputation as a pioneering filmmaker whose films resonated deeply within the Tibetan community. This was all the more remarkable given that his oeuvre consisted of work that was not particularly commercial or accessible and was primarily in the Amdo dialect, which is not easily understood by Tibetans from other regions, including those in exile whose lingua franca is predominantly a version of the Central Tibetan dialect.
From an international perspective, it is relatively straightforward to comprehend the accolades that emerged in the wake of his death, praising him as a trailblazing Tibetan filmmaker whose distinctive style—formalistically complex yet recognisably Tibetan—made him a unique talent in contemporary cinema. That his films were the first to offer intimate insights into Tibetan life under Chinese rule made them all the more unique. But because Pema Tseden was also actively promoted by the Chinese government as an example of a successful ethnic minority filmmaker, most international audiences would have been unaware of the delicate balancing act he had to perform to even get the go-ahead to make his films. In today’s China, Tibet remains a highly sensitive political issue and anything to do with it is subject to abnormal scrutiny, even by the standards of the country’s hyper-paranoid surveillance apparatus. Any film with a Tibetan theme, especially if made by a Tibetan, must undergo an exceptionally rigorous vetting process. The authorities must be entirely convinced that neither the script nor the finished film can in any way be interpreted as criticism of its rule in Tibet.
Pema Tseden’s ground-breaking work in Tibetan cinema hinged on his ability to navigate this formidable bureaucratic challenge. Overcoming these obstacles meant not only securing script approvals but also ensuring that the finished film would pass stringent censorship regulations. From the outset, Pema Tseden set out to challenge prevailing stereotypes about Tibet, demystifying and de-exoticising its cinematic representation. His critique specifically targeted Chinese filmmakers but was equally true about Western filmmakers making films on Tibetan subjects, and echoed the concerns of many exiled Tibetans like myself who aimed to authentically depict our stories through our own filmmaking. Pema Tseden also believed that that only Tibetans could genuinely tell their own stories and faithfully portray the true essence of their lives. However, unlike us exiles who enjoyed relative freedom to explore diverse topics, Pema Tseden was constricted by the fact that everything in present-day Tibet is controlled by the dictates of an authoritarian Chinese government. The question, then, was how could he navigate these complex issues without endangering himself or compromising his artistic vision and creative integrity?
Pema Tseden’s strategy was to steer clear of political undertones in his work, focusing instead on the tensions arising from the clash between modernity and tradition—a conflict common to all developing societies. By framing his narratives within this universal predicament, without singling out any specific entity for blame other than the ineluctable forces of change, Pema Tseden was able to intimately explore the micro-level impact of these changes in Tibet. The dilution of religious practice; the in-between lives of resettled nomads; the gradual forgetting of customs, of folk songs, of language even; the uncertain temporality of semi-urban existence in new but already crumbling frontier towns; the constant battle between the demands of a faceless bureaucracy and the convictions of age-old beliefs: these were the fertile soil on which his imagination thrived. For Tibetan audiences, Pema Tseden’s films spoke volumes without stating the obvious; they could empathise with the dilemmas and challenges faced by his characters without having to point fingers at the presence of Big Brother skulking just outside the edges of the film frame.
Establishing Tibetan cinema, however, required more than acquiring official approval and resources to produce films. Given the absence of a cinematic culture in Tibet, any attempt at making a “Tibetan” film would naturally have to start from scratch. Fortunately, Pema Tseden was a supremely gifted and original filmmaker whose training at China’s renowned Beijing Film Academy stood him in good stead when he set out to make his films. Armed with a thorough knowledge of cinema history, he was clear about the style and direction he wanted his films to take. His cinematic choices were highly conceptual and formalistic, informed by long, static takes and a general lack of close-ups that emphasised the quiet and elegiac quality of his films. Initially, his films made no concessions to his viewers; often employing elliptical story-telling and defying conventional film techniques. The only constants were his thematic concerns on the changes taking place in Tibet, his deliberate avoidance of Chinese characters, and his insistence on using Tibetan actors and settings. Later, as he became more assured in his filmmaking, he made some allowances and his films followed a more conventional narrative arc.
It is worth mentioning that by the time Pema Tseden made his first internationally acclaimed film in 2005, Lhingjag Kyi Mani Dobum (The Silent Holy Stones), a number Tibetan feature films had already been made in exile, a couple of which—including Khyentse Norbu’s Phorpa (The Cup), 1999, and the film that I co-directed with my partner Ritu Sarin, Lhasa’i Milam (Dreaming Lhasa), 2005—had showcased at international film festivals and enjoyed global theatrical distribution. Phorpa, in particular, achieved tremendous success after premiering at Cannes in 1999. As filmmakers in exile, striving to find a specific Tibetan voice, we, too, had to define Tibetan cinema for ourselves. With no paradigms to guide us, and given our peculiar in-between lives—estranged from the physical reality of our homeland while inhabiting a recreated Tibetan world—our challenge was to find ways to make films that reflected this diasporic existence. The films we made in exile, while equally authentic in their attempt to portray a particular Tibetan reality, would always be a tangential offshoot of Tibetan cinema, their unifying thread being the shared experience of statelessness and the fractured schizophrenia of our uprooted lives. In contrast, Pema Tseden and the filmmakers that followed his lead, despite working under severe restrictions, were directly connected to Tibet and to the changes and upheavals that were still ongoing. In that sense, the cinema spearheaded by Pema Tseden was a Tibetan cinema that was birthed in its natural habitat, rooted in the land and reflecting its historic continuum.
Pema Tseden realised from the start that in order to establish Tibetan cinema, it would require an ecosystem to nurture and safeguard its survival. He did this by working with Tibetans as far as possible and by mentoring and encouraging younger talent. The success of his efforts can be seen in the proliferation of a new generation of filmmakers, some of whom have already found success on the international stage. Starting out as an Amdo filmmaker, Pema Tseden quickly realised that his films touched a much wider Tibetan audience, including those in exile, and that he had a responsibility to represent Tibetan cinema as a whole, and not solely Amdo cinema. The irony of the widespread appeal of his films among Tibetans is the fact that for the most part, Tibetans from non-Amdo parts of Tibet would have watched his films with Chinese subtitles, while those living in exile would have relied on English subtitles. That this did not detract from the impact of his films demonstrates that Tibetans everywhere empathised with him, first and foremost, as a Tibetan filmmaker, someone who spoke on their behalf.
While Pema Tseden may not have initially recognized this dimension of the significance of his work, it is undeniable that he took definite steps to bridge the regional gap. His efforts to learn the U-Tsang dialect and collaborate with actors from Lhasa and Kham in his later films were clear indications of the direction he was heading. News that he had plans to make films both in Kham and U-Tsang reflects this awareness, and it is truly unfortunate that his untimely death put an abrupt end to his efforts to forge a pan-Tibetan cinema identity. However, it is my hope that Pema Tseden has done enough to lay the seeds for the evolution of a truly Tibetan cinema and that we will witness its flowering, both in Tibet and in the diaspora, in the coming years.
Tenzing Sonam is a filmmaker and writer. His film work includes award-winning documentaries, narrative features and video installations. His writings have been published in Civil Lines, The Hindu, Indian Quarterly, Asian Film Archive, Monde chinois, and Himal Southasian. He wrote the screenplays for the films Dreaming Lhasa and The Sweet Requiem, which he co-directed with his partner Ritu Sarin. With Sarin, he is founder-director of the Dharamshala International Film Festival.
© 2021 Yeshe | A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities