New Tricks, Old Dogs11 min read

Lowell Cook talks to Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden


Translator’s note: Pema Tsedan is a well-known Tibetan filmmaker. As the first Tibetan to graduate from the prestigious Beijing Film Academy and to achieve international attention for his films, which include Old Dog and Tharlo, he is the face of Tibetan film overseas. Pema Tseden comes from Trika in the Tibetan region of Amdo (Guide, Qinghai Province), an area that has experienced a renaissance in literature from the 1980s to today. My interview with him is the first to be conducted in his native language of Amdo Tibetan and translated into English. – Lowell Cook


First of all, welcome and tashi delek.

Thank you very much. Tashi delek.

You started your career off as a fiction writer before moving to film. How do you see your art, your worldview, and your identity changing?

Both film and fiction were my main interests growing up. I read a lot of novels and watched a lot of movies as a kid. However, as far our hometown is concerned, there aren’t any opportunities to major in film or join a film school. So all I could study was Tibetan and Chinese. All throughout high school and university my focus was Tibetan literature. Nevertheless, I never let my love for film fade during my childhood or university days. In 2000, I went to the Northwestern University for Nationalities in Lanzhou, Gansu, for a masters in literary translation. It was then that I really felt a desire to study film. There is the Trace Foundation, that you probably know about. They have been helping out a lot of Tibetans inside Tibet and so I wrote an application to their foundation, expressing my desire and dream to pursue film. I was accepted and that’s how I was able to go attend the Beijing Film Academy.

You are perhaps the most interviewed filmmaker in China. What is something special about your private life that we may not know?

Right. I’ve done quite a few interviews and have had conversations with people all over, so most of my personal history is probably already covered. But one thing many people aren’t so familiar with is the order of my education. I didn’t go straight from BA to MA and then to graduation like you traditionally do. Before I entered university, I actually spent four years as an elementary school teacher in my hometown. Then in 1991 I studied Tibetan Literature in Lanzhou, and after I graduated in 1995 I didn’t immediately move onto the MA, but worked for the state for four to five years. But while working for the state, I found I didn’t have much interest in that sort of work, so I went back to Lanzhou and did my masters.

Did working as a teacher help to breed your creativity as an artist, or was it an obstacle?

In those days we didn’t have such good access to different opportunities and resources, so I couldn’t go to university right away. But I don’t think it negatively affected me. Sure, you could say it wasted four years of my life, but on the other hand I feel it greatly benefited me in terms of both my film production and my writing. The life experiences, the books I read, and the films I watched over that period all assisted my education about new types of fiction and film.

pullquote: “The films I’d love to make in the future are ones close to my heart, ones I have hidden inside me”

There’s no need to mention the influence of Buddhism on virtually every aspect of Tibetan life. How has Buddhism affected your work?

This is something that everyone asks. There is undeniably a huge influence. Generally speaking, just about everyone and everything throughout Tibetan society has been affected by Buddhism. Down to the smallest aspects of culture and society, there is nothing that hasn’t been affected by Buddhism. The same is true of my films and stories. With the general behavior of Tibetans being so Buddhist-influenced, my films necessarily have a deep connection with Buddhism. My film Silent Holy Stones is a great example of this. Essentially, there is no avoiding Buddhism when you produce a movie about Tibetan life or write a story connected to the Tibetan world.

That being said, my 2018 film Tharlo doesn’t have nearly as much connection to Buddhism as Silent Holy Stones, owing to its historical context. Tharlo is set around the time of the Cultural Revolution, which influences the main character Tharlo’s (Shide Nyima) personal actions and outlook significantly. So Buddhism’s influence is quite minimal there. But Tharlo is nevertheless a Tibetan and is not alien to Buddhism, which subtly present in every corner of his environment. His chanting, the thangka in the corner of his room, and the prayer flags outside are all examples. In sum, every work of Tibetan film or literature will have a presence of Buddhism to varying degrees according to the context in which it is set.

Have you encountered much difficulty finding Tibetan actors? With the Tibetan film industry being so new and small, the number of actors must be even smaller, and you have used non-professional actors in your films as well.

This is gradually changing. For my first film, Silent Holy Stones, I had an extremely difficult time finding actors, and worked with amateur actors which ended up working well since they needed to be close to and familiar with the traditional lifestyle of the roles they played. I’m generally happy to work with both both professional and amateur actors: I just look at what their strong suits are. In Tibet, especially in Amdo, there are extremely few career actors. There are Tibetan comedians, dancers or singers who act as an extension, but acting is not their specialty. These past few years this has been changing slightly, with a few talented actors emerging on the scene who have studied acting in school and have some years of experience. In Tharlo there were also a few professional actors as well as amateur actors.

I imagine it is difficult for Tibetans from other parts of Tibet to understand your movies, and many have to rely on the Chinese subtitles.

This is a big issue for me, and for Tibet at large. Without a single Tibetan lingua franca it is virtually impossible to produce a Tibetan film that all Tibetans would understand. The reason all my films have been in my native dialect of Amdo is because the context, location, characters and cultural sphere of the story all come out of the Amdo region, so the dialect must necessarily be Amdo dialect. Otherwise, there’s no reason why it would have to be in Amdo dialect. For the time being, one way to resolve this might be to dub the film into different dialects. For example, a film that was initially shot in the Amdo dialect might then later dubbed into Central and/or Kham dialects, depending on the place it was being shown, so that everyone could understand. I’m not sure, but that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Similarly, your movies have all been set within Tibetan areas, primarily in Amdo. We’ve heard that your new movie is supposedly set in Kham. Have you thought about filming outside of Tibet?

I do have plans underway starting, from last year, to produce a film in the Kham region. So all the dialogue and expression would be in the Kham dialect. The actors too. Likewise, the physical location and the local customs would be those of the Khampas. I have also considered the idea of making a film somewhere in central Tibet, using the central Tibetan dialect. Honestly, I’d like to make films everywhere throughout Tibet, including those difficult-to-access places such as the northern plains. I do hope to one day make films abroad, or in Chinese inland locations.

“Down to the smallest aspects of culture and society, there is nothing that hasn’t been affected by Buddhism”

What topics would you like to explore but haven’t been able to? For example, I read that the main reason you made Tharlo was because another screenplay was rejected by the censorship committee and Tharlo wasn’t.

That’s hard to say. It probably has something to with the current state of affairs in China. There are a lot of films I’d love to make, but the ones I could realistically make are quite few. First you have to write a screenplay, then you have to submit it to the board, and only then do they decide whether to give you permission to make your movie or not. Some screenplays are granted permission while others are not. Without this permission you can’t just go ahead and make whatever movie you want. The films I’d love to make in the future are ones close to my heart, ones I have hidden inside me. Perhaps ones like the short stories I’ve written. But it’s not so easy. The current environment isn’t so kind to us authors and film writers. That’s the reality.

How was Tharlo received? I heard from many Tibetans that they didn’t fully appreciate it.

Right, Tharlo first played in theatres throughout major cities in China before moving to the Tibetan areas where lots of Tibetans went to see it. People said all sorts of different things. Some said they “got” it, while others said they had no idea what it was about. Others said it was a really well-done film, and yet others said it was completely meaningless. For me, I see this as something that comes with the territory. Considering that it is an independent art film, you have to expect a range of different views. So for Tibetans to say all sorts of things is to be expected.

What sort of audience do you imagine when you write a script and produce a movie? Is it a solely Tibetan audience or an international one?

The reason I started making films has to do with the state of film itself. At that time, there basically were no Tibetans making Tibetan-language films. All films about Tibet or Tibetans were made by other peoples, so there were naturally a lot of issues with content and customs. I thought it would be incredible if there was an ethnic Tibetan film maker, which propelled me to pick up film. My initial aim and wish was not to make films just for Tibetans but also for non-Tibetan audiences. In my first film, Silent Holy Stones, there is nothing that Tibetans from Tibet wouldn’t understand, but for people unfamiliar with Tibet and Tibetan culture it will be very unfamiliar. Yet my aim was that the plot would make sense for a Tibetan audience but also be understandable for non-Tibetans.

Some have been critical of your film The Sacred Arrow as playing into Chinese fantasies about Tibet.

This I completely disagree with. To say that the film was made to appeal to Han sensibilities or that the Tibetan places, culture and background it presented are supposed to resemble Shangri-la somehow, I cannot accept. It’s true that visual aspects differ from my previous films. But in terms of my subject matter – that is, the situation of Tibetans caught between tradition and modernity – it does not deviate from my previous films. This can be seen in the archery culture in the film, with traditional wooden bows and arrows versus modern ones. I stayed true to the themes that I explored in Silent Holy Stones and other films.

As for the reason I made The Sacred Arrow, well, perhaps some of my other films weren’t so readily accessible to the wider Tibetan public. So I made a film with an easily understood narrative, that everyone can watch. Instead of what the critics say, it was in fact aimed at Tibetan society as a whole. The film is culturally located within the actual lived experiences of the Tibetans of Central Tibet, Kham and Amdo. The actors are from all over the Tibetan plateau, though the language of the film is Amdo dialect, specifically the farmer dialect of Chentsa, where the film premiered. Compared my earlier films, this one has probably had the most viewers. When it was first launched, there were about twenty to thirty thousand people who watched it on the first day alone. ∎

Header: Pema Tseden at the Rochelle film festival (Wikimedia Commons).