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These Are Our Lives

Influential Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden has garnered acclaim at home and abroad with his observant, insightful and uniquely authentic portrayals of contemporary life and culture in Tibet

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

The first Tibetan student to train at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, Pema Tseden is recognized as a leading filmmaker of newly emerging Tibetan cinema and the first 
director to film movies entirely in the Tibetan language.  

Tseden’s latest movie, Jinpa, produced by renowned Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, revolves around two Tibetan men whose destinies become intertwined when they share a ride together on the bleak, barren roads of the Tibetan plains. The story explores revenge and redemption, faith and karma, and pursuit of inner peace. Jinpa received a Best Screenplay award in the Horizons section at the 75th Venice International Festival in 2018. Released on April 26, the film took in 10 million yuan (US$1.5m) in its first 11 days in theaters. 

A native of the Tibetan Amdo region of Qinghai Province, Tseden said his goal is to present real contemporary social life and culture. “Frankly speaking, I don’t like lots of Tibetan-themed films because most don’t portray Tibet properly. Tibet is depicted as a remote spiritual haven or a piece of barren land out of the imagination. I always hope there will be more people who have lived and experienced that culture who can make movies that truly reflect Tibetan culture, the way of life and value systems authentically,” Tseden told NewsChina. 

On the Road
Jinpa takes place on the Kekexili Plateau. Averaging around 4,700 meters in altitude, it is home to the highest grasslands in the world. The protagonist, Jinpa, is a truck driver who dresses more like a rock star: jeans, leather jacket, mirrored sunglasses and unkempt facial hair. While driving freight across the barren and lonely roads of the area, he accidentally hits a stray sheep. Out of guilt, Jinpa loads the animal onto his truck so he can take it to a temple.  

Before he reaches his destination, he picks up a hitchhiker wearing traditional dress. They soon discover they have the same name. Before trucker Jinpa drops him off, the stranger reveals he is headed to a different town to kill a man who murdered his father 10 years ago. 

The coincidence haunts Jinpa, especially since he also killed something that day. He visits a local monastery where he burns a yak butter offering for the dead sheep, saying “animals have souls, too.”  

The first half of the film presents like a Tibetan road movie, while the second half veers to an unusual, ambiguous Mulholland Drive-like narrative: trucker Jinpa visits the town to find the other Jinpa and stop him. During his search, Jinpa ends up spending a lot of time at a local run-down bar in the company of a flirtatious hostess. While sleeping in his truck, Jinpa dreams that he exacts revenge on behalf of the other Jinpa.  

Jinpa deviates from the realistic narratives that have made Tseden’s works so acclaimed at film festivals around the world. Through the lens of gifted cinematographer Lu Songye, the movie unfolds like a road movie. But as the story progresses, it challenges audiences to contemplate the borders of reality and fantasy.  

Karma is a motif in Jinpa, as well as other Buddhist concepts. “It is very much like an avant-garde novel in the 1980s, very experimental and ambiguous,” Tseden told NewsChina.  

Jinpa is based on a fusion of the novel The Slayer by Tsering Norbu and Tseden’s own story I Ran Over a Sheep. “These two stories focus on a similar topic: redemption. And they also contain scenes on roads, so it was easy to combine them,” he said.  

Tseden is also a noted author, with 50 short stories and novels published both in Tibetan and Chinese. His work has won many awards, including the Drang-char Tibetan Literature Prize, and has been translated into English, German, French, Czech and Japanese. The motive of his fiction writing and filmmaking is to present a real, modern Tibet.  “

Many people try to describe Tibet with words or visuals, but the way they show Tibet usually casts a veil of mystery over the place – either to romanticize it as an ethereal utopia or depict it as a primitive, barren land. They claim they are presenting reality. But such a reality actually blurs the real image of my hometown. My folks wouldn’t recognize their familiar brothers and sisters in this imaginary land,” Tseden told our reporter.  

For the Record
One of three children born to a nomadic family on the plateaus of Qinghai Province in 1969, Tseden was the only one of his family to graduate from school.  

Though Tseden had enjoyed films since childhood, it never occurred to him that he might one day become a filmmaker himself.  

Like many young Tibetan college students at the time, Tseden was officially restricted to Tibetan literature and language as majors. After graduating from Northwest Minzu University in Lanzhou, Gansu Province, Tseden taught Tibetan literature at a primary school in his hometown, and then became a public servant. 

In 2002, he applied for a scholarship through the Trace Foundation to study filmmaking, and later was accepted to the Beijing Film Academy, the alma mater of China’s most successful filmmakers including Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Jia Zhangke.  

Tseden was not only the academy’s first-ever Tibetan student but also one of its most industrious.  

“He had a blue journal that left a deep impression on me. Every day he filled it with detailed notes on movies he’d seen and wanted to see. Often when I’d go to sleep he would be studying at his desk, and when I woke up in the morning, I found him already at the desk again,” former college roommate and fellow Tibetan filmmaker Sonthar Gyal told NewsChina.  

In his two years at the academy, Tseden produced two short movies, The Grassland and The Silent Holy Stones, both of which garnered international recognition. In 2005, The Silent Holy Stones was expanded to a full-length feature. 

“The Grassland proves that those who are not from the Tibetan culture and can’t speak Tibetan can’t make a real Tibetan film,” said Xie Fei, filmmaker and professor with the directing department at the Beijing Film Academy.  

After the two shorts, Tseden said he wanted to film a historical epic, such as the story of Gldarma (799-842), a famous king in Tibetan history who spearheaded a massive campaign to destroy Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists believe Gldarma to be the reincarnation of the Bull King, a wicked spirit in local mythology. Many local histories embellish the story with magical overtones.  
“I finished the screenplay but realized the subject would be hard to film in China. Later I was really inspired by Iranian movies. Iranian filmmakers tend to choose realistic subjects and present them incredibly well. So I diverted my focus to reality and pondering over the changes that challenge modern Tibet,” Tseden told NewsChina.  

Between 2005 and 2012, he made three full-length features called the “Trilogy of Tibetan areas:” The Silent Holy Stones, The Search and Old Dog. Through these films, Tseden provides an intimate look at everyday life in Tibet, where traditional culture rubs against modernity and globalization.  

Light comedy The Silent Holy Stones explores the erosion of traditional life and spirituality through the story of a little Buddhist novice who spends two days at home during the Tibetan New Year celebration. Ten-year-old “Little Lama” returns home from the remote Guwa monastery only to find himself hopelessly glued to his family’s new TV. He shows little interest in the traditional Tibetan opera about Prince Drime Kunden, preferring the TV adaptation of Journey to the West.  

The Search (2009) narrates a Tibetan director’s quest to find actors to star in a movie based on the same opera, a story about a saint revered for his selflessness. Frustrated, the director cannot find a performer who can live up to the legendary role. The film not only delves into the rapid modernization taking place across the Tibetan plateau but also reflects how materialism undermines the faith, relationship and traditional culture of Tibetans.

 “The trilogy was like a record of a particular period of Tibet. There’s a growing indifference among local Tibetans toward our traditional culture. People seldom know about this tendency, but when you jump outside the culture, you can acutely feel the indifference,” the director told NewsChina.  

Quandary of Modernity
Identity and loss are also main themes in Tseden’s works. 

His fifth feature Tharlo tells of a Tibetan shepherd’s journey for identity. The protagonist travels from his rural home to a city in Qinghai Province to get an ID card. He never uses his given name, Tharlo, and sees no point in needing identification. 

“I know who I am. Isn’t that enough?” he says. In the city, he tries out his urban identity as Tharlo, and a meeting with a hairdresser leads to a life-changing series of events. Tharlo can recite Mao Zedong’s famous speech “Serve the People” by rhythmically chanting it. Mao delivered the speech in 1944 to commemorate the death of PLA soldier Zhang Side. Tseden said he drew this detail from his own memories of the 1970s and 80s.  

The director recalled how Tibetans mainly learned Chinese characters from political slogans such as “Long Live Chairman Mao” or “Long Live the People’s Republic of China.” Many middle-aged 
Tibetans can recite Mao’s famous speeches as fluently as Tharlo. Tseden points out that since Tibetans lived in a pastoral-agricultural society for hundreds of years, certificates – such as ID cards and marriage licenses – had little meaning in their lives. “In the past, most Tibetans didn’t need to prove their identity,” he told NewsChina.  

“Tharlo is a story about searching for identity. Over the course of finding the self, he [Tharlo] poses the simplest questions about his identity and religion, but he eventually loses himself. ” Behind his story is a common one for a generation of Tibetans – how to find identity in a marginalized position. Some attempt to find the self through escape or a change fate through self-exile, but such escapism does not ease anxiety over identity. Instead, it leads to deeper loss or greater harm,” Tseden said. 

Most Tibetan families, Tseden said, send their children to learn Chinese for a chance at a better education and job. As a result, younger generations are learning less about their language and culture. Some local temples distribute Tibetan vocabulary booklets to villagers, with little effect.  
Tseden lived in Beijing for many years so his child would have access to Chinese-language education. But later, he was dismayed that he could not communicate with his son in Tibetan. After his son turned 16, Tseden pulled him out of school for a year to study the language at a temple in his hometown. “It kind of felt like saving a cultural artifact,” Tseden said.  

These years have taught Tseden to accept that changes are inevitable and nothing endures.  

“Even a value system that people used to believe in and were devoted to may completely change beyond recognition within decades or less. What was right in the past becomes wrong in the present,” he told NewsChina. “We always feel sad or even desperate when knowing that what we hold dear is usually transient, ever-changing and uncertain. People have a strong desire to cling on to things they deem unchanging.”  

He feels that film is the right medium to capture the changes that are taking place in Tibetan culture.  

“Filmmaking is a new form of art in Tibet. So, be it exhibiting Tibetan culture, contemporary Tibetan lifestyle, or traditional Tibetan wisdom, the art of filmmaking should become the basic system for presenting contemporary culture,” Tseden said