Documenting Social Change across Tibet

My Twitter followers probably noticed me tweeting quite a bit over the last few weeks about a film called Tharlo. Directed by the highly acclaimed Tibetan filmmaker and writer Pema Tseden, the film follows a Tibetan shepherd named Tharlo as he leaves his quiet life in a remote and isolated village to go to town to have his photo taken for his first ID card.

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Tharlo made a huge splash on the international stage. It premiered in September at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival, and was met with rave reviews from critics. Since then, Tharlo has gone on to win Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Award and, more recently, the Grand Prize at Tokyo Filmex.

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Widely acknowledged as the father of Tibetan cinema, Tseden has inspired many other aspiring and promising Tibetan directors. Hailing from Tsolho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province, Sonthar Gyal is another rising name in Tibetan filmmaking. His most recent film, ‘The River’, drew lots of attention earlier this year when it premiered at the prestigious 65th Berlin International Film Festival. In September, female Tibetan director De Ziji (Dutsi Kyi) picked up the award for Best Feature Film at ‘Qingchun Zhengneng’ Micro-Film Festival in China for her film, ‘A Kid Under the Tree’. Professor of Tibetan studies at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO), Françoise Robin has also noted that amateur filmmaking has been flourishing since 2009. Clearly, the wheels of Tibetan cinema are firmly in motion.

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This morning, as I was making my daily rounds through Weibo and Wechat, I came across a short essay on a new Tibetan-directed documentary called Tsekor.

Tsekor refers to one of the six sacred circuits along Lhasa’s sacred circumambulatory route that devout pilgrims have visited for centuries.

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Today, Tsekor occupies a space of paradox. To one side sits the Potala Palace, and on the other, flows the non-stop stream of traffic on Lhasa’s increasingly busy streets. Straddling old and new worlds, the ambiguity of progress and anxiety of loss hang heavy over Tsekor. In many ways, its physical location could be said to reflect the many challenges and dilemmas of modernity that currently characterise the Tibetan plateau.

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Tsekor is one of the first female-directed films to be produced in Tibetan cinema. The director, Tenzin Sedon, was born in 1991 and hails from Lhasa. She graduated from Shanghai Donghua University and later studied at Plymouth University, England. It was during her time at Plymouth that Tenzin fell in love with documentary-making process. Since then, she has  made several short films and has won many impressive prizes for her work in both the UK and China, among which include awards from the British Royal Television Society (RTS), Zhenjiang International Film Festival, and the International Students’ Micro Film Ceremony.

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Made over the course of 15 months and on a budget of just over 600,000RMB, Tenzin’s documentary tells the stories of three ‘ordinary people’ working in Tsekor. Documenting their changing fates as they negotiate new choices, opportunities, challenges, and threats in the face of social change, she aims to dispel the tired picture of Lhasa as a mystical space yet untouched by the forces of modernization to show what she sees as the ‘true’ face of modern Lhasa.

Pubu Tsering, one of the three people featured in the documentary, is a pea vendor at Tsekor. He moved to Lhasa for work as a teenager and is now over 50 years old. After a bout of alcoholism and a spell in prison, Pubu found his way back onto the straight and narrow. Now running his small street stall and living by his faith, Pubu reflects on the changes he has witnessed and experiences during his time on the streets of Lhasa.

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Nyima is a waitress at a sweet teahouse at Tsekor. A young woman from a small village in the countryside, she came to Lhasa to escape a forced marriage arranged by her parents. Though she often misses the herding life, she also desire the bustling urban life that Lhasa has to offer. Yet, unable to speak Mandarin fluently, her dreams of city life do not come easily. For her, village life offered her little prospects, but the future that the fast-paced and ever-changing face of Lhasa can offer her remains unclear.

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Lamei is an aspiring entrepreneur. A young Muslim boy, he also came to Lhasa in search of work. Now trying to make a go out a small grocery business on the Tsekor, Lamei struggles to find his place in Lhasa and often feels quite like an outsider. Yet he also sees Lhasa as the city of opportunity and is now working with friends to make his name.

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Like Tharlo, Tsekor is also concerned with dispelling the shrouds of mystery and romanticism through which Tibet and Tibetans are so often portrayed. Attempting to document the struggles to negotiate and navigate the disorientating waters of social change, this 90-minute documentary is very much about the predicament of modernity many Tibetans currently grapple with across the Tibetan Plateau, and will surely make for interesting viewing.

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