Among the pomp and ceremony of the Chinese film industry, the quiet voices can be overlooked. But while big-budget productions such as Let The Bullets Fly and Aftershock grab headlines, a new wave of films are garnering critical attention: films from Tibet.

It started in 2005 with The Silent Holy Stones directed by Pema Tseden (Wanma Caidan in Mandarin), the first filmmaker to film in Tibetan dialect using an all-Tibetan cast and crew. The film picked up numerous best new director awards for Pema, who has since made two more films, The Search(2009; Grand Jury prize at the Shanghai International Film Festival) and Old Dog (2011; currently on the festival circuit). Pema’s director-of-photography, Sonthar Gyal, has gone on to direct his own film, The Sun-Beaten Path(pictured above), which won the Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Filmmakers at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) in October.

‘Over the past two or three years, all the innovative filmmaking from Chinese independent directors seems to be concentrated in documentary production, with one striking exception,’ says Shelly Kraicer, programmer at VIFF. ‘That’s exactly Tibetan feature films.’

While the lush, Tibetan grasslands have intoxicated filmmakers from both the East (Wei Dai’s Once Upon a Time in Tibet) and West (Brad Pitt inSeven Years in Tibet), this new crop of film paints the landscape in rather bleaker shades.

‘The romantic view of Tibet is a foreign concept,’ says Pema when we meet at the China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing. ‘To us, our way of life is not like that. One purpose of my films is to show the value of living off the land. That is probably why those with preconceived notions don’t see what they want to see.’

Old Dog follows one man and his Tibetan Mastiff, elderly Akku (Lochey) who battles with his alcoholic son Gonpo (Drolma Kyab) who’s determined to sell the coveted creature to mainland dealers. The setting is a small town in Qinghai, flanked by grasslands and a main street of mud. Disused pipes litter the roads and scaffolding scales squat buildings. Youths sink balls into the pockets of a discarded pool table.

‘My homeland is very different from what it used to be,’ says Pema, who’s a 41-year-old son of nomads and the only one of three siblings to finish school. ‘Young people now ride motorbikes in the grasslands. In the past there would always be a large horse riding competition and a lot of herders would participate. It was a matter of honour to win such a competition. But because of the motorbikes – some people even herd sheep on bikes – horses aren’t used anymore.’

Drawing on the ancient Tibetan art form thangkas (richly-symbolic embroidered silk paintings), the films by Pema and Sonthar are lush, imbued with metaphor and at times painstakingly slow. Many of the scenes of The Sun-Beaten Path simply track guilt-ridden Nima (Yeshe Lhadruk) wandering the asphalt road through the Gobi desert en route to Lhasa. Meanwhile, one near-static take in Old Dog, in which Akku and Gonpo form a tete-a-tete across a table, is four-minutes long. The Shanghai International Film Festival jury said The Search is ‘almost a meditation in patience’.

‘Tibetan filmmakers are focused more on the micro than the macro,’ says Elliot Sperling, professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University who specialises in Tibetan issues. ‘If you look at something like The Search, in which they’re trying to find people to take part in a traditional Tibetan opera, it touches on questions about the preservation of the opera, which could be seen to be about the preservation of the Tibetan environment. But it brings it down to the personal level and doesn’t stray to the larger political considerations.’

For Pema, Old Dog is almost too personal – he calls it both his ‘most sincere’ and ‘most desperate’ film to date. In the excruciating final scene (spoiler alert), rather than give his sidekick up to mainland dealers, Akku hangs his dog.

‘This film portrays the current state-of-affairs,’ says Pema, adding that he feels depressed when he watches the film. ‘All the depression and tension that’s been building throughout wouldn’t have been displayed to full effect without this killing of the dog. It’s an act of desperation.’

Yet the films by both Gyal and Pema contain many moments of grace. After the hanging, the camera follows Akku for a full minute as he strides across the sun-streaked grasslands. It’s one of many images that lingers after the lights come up.

‘There’s a scene in The Search that I remember very clearly,’ says Tenzin Phuntsog, curator of the Tibet Film Archive in New York. ‘There’s a ritual that Tibetan families have when you come home or before you go out: you always offer tea. I remember seeing this in Pema’s film, and thinking that the way he frames it is very authentic, it’s a very beautiful thing to have filmed and I instantly connected with it.’


Link to Time Out Shanghai