Framing Exile: A History of Tibetan Cinema
Many foreign films have focused on the history and culture of Tibet, from Frank Capra’s 1937 film Lost Horizon to Martin Scorsese’s meditation on the life of the Dalai Lama, Kundun (1997). Whilst the Tibetan contribution to cinema has historically been limited, several Tibetan filmmakers have emerged in recent years who have attempted to depict the lives of Tibetans, both in Tibet and in exile.
Tibet’s own history with film begins with a story of cultural exchange. The first documented film screening in Tibet was in 1920 when Charles Bell watched films with Tsarong, the commander in chief of the Tibetan army, in his private screening room. The following British missions to Lhasa frequently used cinema in their transactions with Tibet. F.M. Bailey showed films in Lhasa in 1924, as did Frederick Williamson in 1936. The latter even entertained the Thirteenth Dalai Lama with Charlie Chaplin films.
Cinema remained of great interest in Tibet. In the memoirSeven Years in Tibet (adapted into a 1997 film by Jean-Jacques Annaud),Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountain climber, informs us that the young 14th Dalai Lama was a keen cinematographer and that he in fact commissioned Harrer to build him a private cinema hall before he was forced to flee Tibet after the Chinese invasion.
The first full-length Tibetan feature film is considered to be Phorpa(The Cup 1999 byDzongsarJamyangKhyentse Rinpoche, also known as Khyentse Norbu. A Bhutan lama, Rinpoche loved film and as a result he decided to challenge tradition and enrol in the London Film School. Whilst there, he was required to assist as adviser for Bertolucci's film, Little Buddha. He has since directed three short films, Etto Metto, 9 1/2 and The Big Smoke. Rinpoche sees film as a ‘real illusion’, which can be used as way to explore human experience and Buddhist philosophy.
Phorpa is based on the real experiences of refugee monks within his monastery, and their passion for the World Cup. ‘This film is about the school that I have been running for almost 20 years. It's a subject that I know very well. I go round the world trying to raise funds for the school. Almost all the students have been, and still are, escapees from Tibet, having crossed mountains and rivers and endured lots of hardship.’ The film depicts the attempts of two football mad monks to get a TV to watch the 1998 World Cup. Whilst the film revolves around Tibetan culture, it was filmed in the Tibetan refugee village of Bir in India.
For Phorpa Rinpoche used local monks and Buddhist lamas as actors, and his crew consisted mostly of Buddhist students and monks, which allowed him to accurately portray monastic life. ‘Usually there is an expectation that a monastery is pure, but it is not always like that. Because, after all, what is a monk? A human being. It's someone who is trying hard to do something, to practise. That doesn't mean that when he becomes a monk, ninety per cent of his emotion is gone.’
Phorpa is a warm and humorous depiction of Tibetan wisdom and a culture which is striving to maintain its identity and traditions. The film was highly successful and won prizes at Cannes and further afield.
In 2004, Pema Dhondup, explored the story of four Tibetan friends living as refugees in Dharamshala in his film We Are No Monks. As the title suggests, the film is about the way in which Tibetan exiles are perceived; either as monks, or as another Tibetan stereotype. Dhondup uses gritty realism to explore the reality of Tibet’s political situation and what it is to be an exile. He questions whether the struggle for Tibetan freedom will ever lead to violence. Dhondup, himself a Tibetan refugee, was brought up in India by his refugee parents who left Tibet after the Chinese occupation in 1959.The BBC said of Pema Dhondup: ‘He is the angry young face of Tibetan exiles in India, fighting the stereotypical view of Tibetans as peace-loving monks.’
Despite the restrictions on freedom of expression within Tibet, some local filmmakers have managed to make films in the territory. Two of the leading figures in independent Tibetan filmmaking, Pema Tseden and Sonthar Gyal, created the film Old Dog (2011) together. Pema Tseden is a talented Tibetan filmmaker who studied at the Beijing Film Academy.Hisaward winning films focus on the influence and importance of culture and tradition in modern day Tibet. His films challenge the idea of an exotic Tibet, as reflected in Western cinema, or a successful example of modernisation and progress as depicted in Chinese film. Rather his work shows the reality of contemporary Tibetan life. Pema describes his films as being influenced by the traditional Tibetan aesthetic of thethangkaor scroll paintings: ‘their like a panorama: all the stories are in one picture.’
Cinematographer Sonthar Gyal went on to direct The Sun Beaten Path (2011), which rather than displaying the spiritual side of Tibet, explores the endless roads through flat barren landscape through the eyes of a grief stricken young man called Nyma. We discover that Nyma is unsure whether he is morally entitled to return home. He decides to walk home through the wilderness of Tibet. During his journey, Nyma meets an old man who attempts to befriend him and aid him in his journey. In this film and in Old Dog the old man symbolises the wisdom of elder generations. Both films use amateur actors and film on location in the northeast of the Tibetan plateau. The Sun Beaten Path won the Dragons & Tigers award at the 2011 Vancouver International Film Festival and was shown at six other film festivals including the 55th BFI London Film Festival.
By Anya Kordecki
Watch the trailer for The Sun Beaten Path below: