Results of a survey by TFF on tibetan filmmaking - written by former organising committee member Wangpo Tethong
Note: The original text is written in german and published in this years TFF program brochure (link on homepage)
"How do you see the future of the Tibetan film?" The Tibet Film Festival has confronted with this question Tibetan filmmakers. Around a dozen filmmakers - including three women - shared their views with us
The feedback from the filmmakers reveals a partly precarious and partly hopeful picture of Tibetan filmmaking. Let two directors from Tibet first speak to us, who stand for Tibetan filmmaking par excellence.
For Sonthar Gyal, internationally renowned director of art-house films such as Sun Beaten Path (2011) and River (2015), the situation is characterized by two fundamental limitations. The Tibetan film has only a short past and consequently lacks the variety of genres and films. Furthermore, he points out: "The Tibetan market cannot currently guarantee returns on the investments made. Therefore, it will be some time before large productions with a Tibetan character are created."
The award-winning Tibetan director Pema Tseden has achieved international fame with films such as The Silent Holy Stones (2006), Old Dog (2011) or Tharlo (2015). The most internationally best known filmmaker from Tibet, who is linked by close cooperation with Sonthar Gyal, advises against films of low quality: "There must be a professional standard. In other words, if the artistic and technical level is not visible, filmmaking becomes a childish play and does not result in any development." The path that Pema Tseden is proposing for the future of Tibetan film has a programmatic character: "Films with a background that reflects Tibetan culture, tradition or everyday life must be produced and oriented towards international filmmaking and the international film market, pursuing their original path in the process.”
For Tibet, as for exile, there is a lack of established film culture. For the younger filmmakers, however, this does not seem to be detracting from their enthusiasm. They count on networks that will compensate for existing and undisputed deficits. In Tibet, such a network is recognizable in the environment of the two heavyweights Sonthar Gyal and Pema Tseden. There are cooperation and mutual support. They help each other in script development, camera work or production. In exile, such approaches can also be seen in the surroundings of the two filmmakers Ritu and Tenzin Sonam. Since the founding of the Tibet Film Festival, a public platform has also been created where filmmakers and the public can exchange ideas about Tibetan film.
Yangzom Brauen, actress, author, and director of Born in Battle (Short Film, Fiction, 2015) suggests that the networking approaches mentioned above be further developed. The artist, who has both Tibetan and Swiss roots, refers to the Film Academy of German-Language Filmmakers in Los Angeles and suggests that Tibetan filmmakers could similarly organize themselves. This German-speaking network in the USA began with a simple membership and then grew successively.
What about the topics? Kesang Tseten, director and scriptwriter, who works in Nepal and became known for his documentaries about a country, that became his new home, admits that he has worked on few Tibetan topics. It is more important to him that Tibetan filmmakers follow their instincts and interests. This is the best way to ensure that the films have an authentic rooting. He believes that this makes film work easier and ultimately better.
For Tenzin Sonam and Ritu, who have long been perceived outside Tibet as the only Tibetan filmmakers, Tibetan filmmaking will change radically in the future: "With the digital revolution in full swing and the means of production coming down all the time and with the internet increasingly becoming the primary platform for distributing film content, we will see an explosion of Tibetan filmmaking in the near future.” They feel, that it cannot be prevented that this increase will also lead to many bad films. It is therefore important to create opportunities to the same extent as films are now being made so that the prospective filmmaker can be shown how good films are made. Their wish for the future of Tibetan filmmaking is that Tibetan filmmakers “take a closer look at their own situations and conditions and not shy away from tackling difficult or uncomfortable subjects”. Tibetan filmmaking should always be careful not to succumb to self-censorship. Films are a strong force to change social norms and views and to break new ground. Filmmakers must be prepared to meet this challenge.
The Swiss actress Pema Shitsetsang played the leading role in Tenzin Dazel's "The Royal Cafe" (2016). She says: "I am happy that there is a Tibetan film industry." A remarkably simple as well as true statement, since only a few years ago such a statement would not have been possible because of the small number of films. Pema Shitsetsang has been active in various capacities since the beginning of the Tibet Film Festival. On the festival side, she has experienced the laborious search for Tibetan films and on the production side, she has found that the financing, production, and marketing of Tibetan films can drive one to despair. Indeed, "The Royal Café" is about the difficulties and self-doubt of a Tibetan director. The Tibetan film can only exist if it is honest with itself, she says. It also has to look beyond his cultural boundaries. It's not just a matter of telling Tibetan stories, but also of filming the Tibetans' perspective on the important things in life, says Gyalthang Tsering, a director living in Vietnam, and who delivered a talented taste sample of such work with "Huong" (2016).
Every good story, good acting or directing that entertains the audience deserves our gratitude. However, there is something more to it. We all experienced great cinematic moments in movie halls. These are collective, identity-creating experiences in an increasingly fragmented world and can acquire a meaning that goes far beyond the specific plot and the film itself. These precious moments also exist in Tibetan films.
We then share these experiences and argue passionately about the meaning of what we have just seen on the screen. In any case, these moments are important landmarks of a modern cultural memory landscape, which is characterized by contradictory, simultaneous events.
In the past, myths have ensured that peoples could give their existence a transcendent meaning. The legends from the Illiad of Homer connected the Greeks scattered along the shores of the Mediterranean. Similarly, nomads on the Tibetan plateau have been telling each other the legends of Ling Gesar for centuries. Thanks to the belief in their very strange myth of origin, the sexual connection of a beast and an ape, they also have common ancestors and thus share the idea of a common cultural homeland.
What are our stories today that make us part of an identity-founding narrative?
A modern equivalent can be found in Pema Tseden's film about the shepherd Tharlo. In a hairdresser's salon, an insignificant dialogue unfolds, about sheep and cattle, between a shepherd fallen out of time and a young urban hairdresser who will soon betray him and his love. Illusions of the protagonists are reflected in the dirty mirrors. The unquenchable longing for affection, which the shepherd is unable to express to her, forms an almost unbearable emotional arc of tension. We take a look into a Tibetan hairdresser salon and today's Tibet, a fleeting world that is dissolved in 25 frames per second and may soon no longer exist.
The gloomy minimalism in Tharlo or Sunbeaten Path represents a story and a narrative of which we as an audience are only a part when we raise the cultural curiosity to deal with it, to question it, and again to share it with others.
But Tibetan film doesn't always have to be so minimalist. There is probably no more potent medium than the film with its seductive power. It should be, thematically as well as formally, of diverse and colorful expressiveness. As always, hope lies in the next generation of filmmakers, who may surprise us with their lust for stories. Admittedly, it's often too much to demand for, but it's worth it for anyone who gets involved in this venture.