A first: Tibetans make films on Tibet

By Tsering Namgyal Khortsa

TAIPEI, Taiwan, 4 February 2004 (Asia Times Online) — At last, Tibetan directors are getting into the Tibet act.

While many documentaries have been made about Tibet, usually emphasizing the exotic and the extraordinary, movie-lovers and Tibet-lovers are yet to see full-length feature films about Tibetans in exile and the issues they confront about homeland loyalty, individualism and reconciling their personal fulfillment with the Tibet cause. What's been lacking is drama, intrigue, suspense — but that is changing.

Tibetan directors made three feature films last year in what appears to be a budding Tibetan film movement, though it's still more of a cottage industry. And of course all the films were made outside Tibet, which China considers part of its territory — in northern India and in Bhutan, another Himalayan Buddhist kingdom.

Most Tibet movie-goers remember Seven Years in Tibet by Jean-Jacques Annaud and the critically acclaimed Kundun by Martin Scorsese. Now, it's the Tibetans' turn.

Two films, Poison Charm and We Are No Monks, will be released this year. Travellers and Magicians about Bhutan has already been released and well reviewed. The buzz is about Poison Charm, bankrolled by American actor and Tibet activist Richard Gere and Bernardo Bertolucci's Britain-based producer, Jeremy Thomas. Gere also is executive producer.

The widely anticipated film is the creation of the Indian-Tibetan filmmaking couple Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, and it has been in the making for nearly five years. Both Sarin and Sonam attended Delhi University and later studied filmmaking in California.

The shooting was completed in December, editing will be finished in early summer and Sarin and Sonam plan hope to screen the film at the Venice Film Festival in October, followed immediately by the Toronto Film Festival.

Their previous works include Shadow Circus, a revealing documentary about the US Central Intelligence Agency's involvement in Tibet in the 1960s. At that time, alarmed by Chinese communism, the CIA trained, financed and supported a Tibetan guerrilla resistance on the Nepal-Tibet border, but later withdrew its aid, leading to the collapse of the movement.

A drama about exiled youth

Poison Charm deals with issues of exile for Tibetan youth, dislocation, and the attempts to re-establish their ethnic roots, but the plot contains intrigue and drama, rare in the Tibetan film genre.

Shooting went smoothly. "I'm just really happy and grateful that it all went as smoothly as it did," Sonam said in an interview. "I am excited about editing the film and a little nervous about what lies ahead."

In the movie, Karma, a 30-year-old Tibetan filmmaker who has grown up in New York City, goes to McLeod Ganj near Dharamshala in northern India to rediscover her roots and to escape from a troubled relationship with her partner, a black American, with whom she has a four-year-old daughter. She decides to make a film there, in what is often called Little Lhasa, about former political prisoners who have escaped from Tibet. Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh is the seat of the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile.

Karma's assistant is Jigme, a young Tibetan, and together they meet Dhondup, an ex-monk who has recently escaped from Tibet. He tells Karma that his real reason for coming to India is to deliver a charm box — often used as a protection amulet — to a man named Loga, an ex-CIA-trained fighter who has been missing for 15 years. Karma and Jigme eventually learn that somewhere in the mountains above Dharamshala lives a hermit who may be able to unlock the secret contained in the charm box.

The picture was shot in the Tibetan communities of Dharamshala and Dehra Dun in Uttranchal, in New Delhi and also in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. The film brought together professionals both from within the Tibetan community and outside. Kathmandu-based Tibetan director Tsering Rhitar is the associate director and Indian cinematographer Ranjan Palit is the director of photography.

In We Are No Monks, filmmaker Pema Dhondup tells the story of four friends living in the exiled Tibetans' capital Dharamshala. The young quartet are torn between trying to do something good for their homeland and the urgency of finding their way into the regular world of salaries, careers and, the most common of all dreams, emigration to America.

Largely shot in McLeod Ganj, the film by Dhondup, a graduate from the film school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, portrays both the aspirations and frustrations of Tibetan young people. Dhondup says he actually shot the film on a "zero budget" — everything was donated, no one was paid. Much of the funding came from benefactors such as Rupin Dang of Wilderness Films, a New Delhi production company that makes documentaries for the National Geographic and Discovery channels.

Debating how to pursue the Tibet cause

While Tibetans of different orientations and origins are bound together in their concern for the Tibetan cause, the film underscores the continuing debate about which methods they should adopt to attain it.

And the cause itself is debated. The Tibetan exile government led by the Dalai Lama currently promotes a middle approach between full independence and total Chinese control. But a minority of Tibetans strive for total autonomy and do not believe that China has any right to control Tibet, and they compare themselves to pro-independence activists in Taiwan.

In the film We Are No Monks, for instance, one of the characters, Passang, a newly arrived Tibetan youth and former political prisoner, considers taking the dangerous path of violence in order to draw attention to the plight of Tibetans and their demands for independence or real autonomy.

"It is an issue," said director Dhondup. "Will Tibetan youth one day be forced to shun the philosophy of non-violence and take up more extreme measures?"

The youngest of the four characters, Tenzin, born in Tibet and educated in India, defies the wishes of his patriotic civil-servant father by plotting ways to move to the United States, which he imagines as a cure-all for his problems.

While all the Tibetan actors in the movie are amateurs, one well-known Indian actor, Gulshan Grover, appears as the ubiquitous policeman trying to maintain order despite the boisterous, nocturnal social life of dancing and drinking that often characterize the life of exile and activism. Grover also contributed his talents at no cost. His suave Bollywood performance adds a bit of luster.

A film about Bhutanese dreams of America

Not all Tibetan-made movies are about Tibet, however. In Travellers and Magicians, filmmaker Khyentse Norbu tries his cinematic skills on the life in the beautiful — some say mystical — Kingdom of Bhutan, a Buddhist Himalayan country.

For its artistic brilliance and hilarious narrative, Norbu's first movie, The Cup, won critical international acclaim. It told of the passion for soccer and fun among the teenage monks who otherwise led a highly regimented life.

In Travellers, which has earned rave reviews in the US and elsewhere in the West, Norbu takes his already successful movie career a step further. Shot in pristine Bhutan, the movie tells the story of a Bhutanese official, Dhondup, who also sees America as his Shangri-La.

Norbu is not only a film director, he is also a spiritual leader and is known by his religious title, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, recognized by Tibetan Buddhists as the reincarnation of one of the greatest Tibetan Buddhist masters of the 20th century. Rinpoche is internationally well connected and runs a spiritual network called Siddhartha International. He is also an aspiring novelist and poet and a fan of Japanese culture, including Japanese movies.

And between movies, the Rinpoche, who previously had a role in the Bertolucci's the Little Buddha, is highly sought after as a lecturer on Buddhism. Asked about this two lives as filmmaker and spiritual guide, Rinpoche said he sees no contradiction in his life between the material and the sacred. Rather, he said, the two paths complement each other, since movies can be used as tools for spiritual practice and "visualization" just as religious scroll art, Thangkas, are used for spiritual training.

If the movies can help attain some purpose of education or enlightenment, then the recent Tibetan films may be regarded as another dimension of Tibet's spiritual culture.

Tsering Namgyal may be contacted at:

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