Moun­tains may depart, says Ti­betan film­maker

Kuwait Times - - L IFEST YLE -

Snow-capped moun­tains, end­less grass­lands, smil­ing monks: Ti­betan film­maker Pema Tseden’s lat­est vi­sion of his home­land, shot in stark black and white, rel­e­gates th­ese to the back­ground. Stereo­types of the Hi­malayan re­gion are deeply in­grained in China, whose six mil­lion Ti­betans-less than half of one per­cent of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion are of­ten pre­sented to the Han ma­jor­ity as ex­otic and rugged fea­tures of the wild west, framed more as a tourist at­trac­tion than peo­ple.

But Tseden’s films, fea­tur­ing all-Ti­betan casts and al­most en­tirely in Ti­betan, mostly deal with the col­li­sion be­tween mod­ern life and tra­di­tional cul­ture, and its im­pact on the in­di­vid­ual. “Some peo­ple think Ti­betans are very mys­te­ri­ous and mys­ti­cal, that they live in the sky, but through my works I want to show Ti­betans are or­di­nary peo­ple and change some peo­ple’s think­ing,” Tseden told AFP. It is a daunt­ing task, with Tseden fight­ing against a nar­ra­tive of­ten re­in­forced by China’s vast state me­dia and pro­pa­ganda ma­chine as it seeks to pro­mote “eth­nic unity” and snuff out any sign of what Beijing sees as sep­a­ratism.

His lat­est work “Tharlo” opens with the ti­tle char­ac­ter, a shep­herd, recit­ing from mem­ory “To Serve the Peo­ple” in Man­darin Chi­nese, a pas­sage from rev­o­lu­tion­ary leader Mao Ze­dong’s Lit­tle Red Book, and hop­ing he will live up to its Com­mu­nist ideals. It fol­lows him as he trav­els from the pas­tures to the city to get a photo for his gov­ern­ment iden­tity card. Tharlo finds his aus­tere ex­is­tence called into ques­tion af­ter meet­ing a hair­dresser who prom­ises she will run away with him, if only they had the money from sell­ing Tharlo’s flock-not all of which he owns.

“He is con­fused about his own iden­tity, he’s not really sure about it, so he needs to go look­ing,”Tseden said. “In Ti­betan ar­eas, this kind of case is still very com­mon.” The char­ac­ter’s dilemma re­flects Tseden’s per­sonal trans­for­ma­tion as a son of no­mads who now shows films at in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­vals. A soft-spo­ken man who rarely shows emo­tion, he is clearly un­com­fort­able in the spot­light him­self. “Tharlo” cost lit­tle more than $300,000 and took only two months to film and edit. But it is cur­rently fac­ing off against works by ti­tans Jia Zhangke and Hou Hsiao-hsien-who won the best di­rec­tor award at Cannes this year-at the world’s pre­miere fes­ti­val of Chi­nese cin­ema, Tai­wan’s Golden Horse.

It is among the five nom­i­nees in both the best fea­ture and best di­rec­tor cat­e­gories, with the win­ners to be an­nounced on Satur­day (Nov 21). The mono­chrome footage mutes the tow­er­ing moun­tains that are the cen­tre­piece of many films about Ti­bet, and high­lights the con­trasts of China’s ef­forts to mod­ern­ize un­der­de­vel­oped ar­eas. One ex­te­rior shot of Tharlo’s mud brick home shows tow­er­ing py­lons stand­ing along­side, while the hovel it­self lacks elec­tric­ity. A re­view on the web­site of trade pub­li­ca­tion Screen In­ter­na­tional said it was “a beau­ti­fully judged pic­ture from a di­rec­tor to note”.

Mi­nor­ity re­port

Born in 1969 in a Ti­betan area of Qinghai prov­ince, Tseden said he knows many Ti­betans like Tharlo, who may not be able to read a sin­gle Chi­nese char­ac­ter but have mem­o­rized pro­pa­ganda that was forced on ev­ery­one of a cer­tain age in China. Even so he grew up lov­ing the slap­stick com­edy of Char­lie Chap­lin. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from univer­sity he spent a year as a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial be­fore go­ing back to school, first study­ing trans­la­tion and then cin­ema at the pres­ti­gious Beijing Film Acad­emy. His 2005 movie “The Silent Holy Stones” was the first full-length film to be shot en­tirely in Ti­betan.

As a whole, the Chi­nese film in­dus­try is boom­ing, with ticket sales for do­mes­ti­cally made films rak­ing in 16.2 bil­lion yuan ($2.5 bil­lion)last year, up 27 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Press, Pub­li­ca­tion, Ra­dio, Film and Tele­vi­sion, which reg­u­lates the me­dia and cen­sors its out­put. But de­spite in­ter­na­tional ac­claim, mi­nor­ity films have a pre­car­i­ous fu­ture in China, not least be­cause of a dearth of cine­mas in Ti­betan re­gions, with most films watched on pi­rated DVDs. “Com­pared to main­stream Chi­nese-lan­guage films and com­mer­cial movies, the space for de­vel­op­ment for eth­nic mi­nor­ity films is small,”Tseden said.

“It’s hard for a film that’s made on the fringe to in­te­grate into the wider mar­ket... and one rea­son is cen­sor­ship.” Au­thor­i­ties have stopped some of his scripts be­ing filmed, al­though Tseden said he now un­der­stands the sys­tem bet­ter and “Usu­ally there won’t be a big prob­lem”. Of­fi­cials only re­quested mi­nor changes for Tharlo, he said-de­clin­ing to give de­tails-even though the movie cen­ters on mod­ern­iza­tion cor­rupt­ing the shep­herd. “Ur­ban­i­sa­tion has definitely im­pacted tra­di­tional life­styles and that im­pact has been huge,” Tseden said. “Their lives change, they en­ter the city, a new en­vi­ron­ment, and they can’t adapt, they can’t sur­vive.”— AFP

In this June 5, 2015 file photo, Florence and the Ma­chine per­form dur­ing the Gov­er­nors Ball Mu­sic Fes­ti­val on Ran­dall’s Is­land Park in New York. — AFP

This photo taken on Novem­ber 12 , 2015 shows Ti­betan film­maker Pema Tseden in the Beijing Film Acad­emy theater in Beijing be­fore a screen­ing of his new film ‘Tharlo’. — AFP

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