Asia-Pacific, Headlines

/ARTS WEEKLY/FILM-TIBET: Exiles Take to the Silver Screen

Daniel Haber

DHARAMSALA, India, Sep 2 2003 (IPS) - It was like an old-fashioned circus sideshow – a hand-painted banner, and in front, a barker on a battery-powered mike trying to sell tickets to the show.

In this case, it was a benefit for the Students for a Free Tibet movie show called ‘Melong’ (‘Clear Light’ in Tibetan). Curious bystanders stop to look at the posters and listen to the spiel, and some even fork out 100 rupees (about 2.25 U.S. dollars) to buy a ticket for the 60-minute screening.

Seated next to a vegetable vendor, the 20-something young man on the microphone, a Tibetan-Nepali named Seshi (pronounced ”See-she”), is the movie’s director, whose handsome face figures on the glossy poster as its star.

”We tried to keep costs down,” he explains to a curious reporter who recognises him from the poster. ”Shooting on video, our total budget was only 50,000 Nepalese rupees (about 650 dollars).”

Seshi says that he had trained under photographer Eric Valli, famous for his ‘Honey Hunters’ documentary and Academy Award nominee feature ‘Caravans’, from Nepal.

Upstairs, the way leads to the Tibet Travels & Tours office, which is shared by another Tibetan film production company, coincidentally called Clear Mirror Productions, here in Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile community.

Another movie is about to be shot here, called ‘The Four Harmonious Friends’ directed by University of Southern California graduate, 38-year-old Tibetan Pema Dhondup.

A few months earlier, there had been advertisements calling for actors and crew on the local bulletin boards. Now, there are posters everywhere – even taped to trees and rocks – for yet another Tibetan feature film, also casting for actors.

This one, called ‘Poison Charm’, is also being directed by a Tibetan, Tenzing Sonam, and his Indian wife Ritu Sarin, a filmmaker couple who had made a successful television documentary called ‘The Shadow Circus’ about U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s involvement in the Khampa rebellion against the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

The advertisement touts ”the gracious blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the involvement of Richard Gere and Jeremy Thomas, producer of the Hollywood films ‘The Last Emperor’ and ‘The Little Buddha’ by Bernaro Bertolucci.

Both ‘The Four Harmonious Friends’ and ”Poison Charm” seem likely to treat similar themes: the intergenerational conflicts within the diaspora community between the first escapees and the second-generation of Tibetans born in exile, who have never seen Tibet and wonder what it means to be ”Tibetan”.

This conflict of interest is already quite apparent on the streets of Dharamsala, or wherever Tibetans live in exile.

One can see the wrinkled and weathered oldsters in traditional dress telling their rosaries or spinning prayer wheels, and the younger generation spinning compact discs and looking as fashionably hip (and rebellious) as any Harlem hip-hopsters, or Bollywood brats.

That evening, Seshi screened his video ‘Melong’ to a young sympathetic audience at Dharamsala’s TIPA (Tibet Institute of Performing Arts) auditorium.

Despite the film’s home-movie amateurishness with an implausible, predictable plot, the story of an unemployed Tibetan graduate unable to find a job in the Nepali capital Kathmandu and the troubles he falls into – bad company, drinking and disco brawls – struck a chord with the cheering audience of Tibetan youth who face similar predicaments upon graduation.

There was hardly a dry eye in the audience when the hero laments that his loving parents sacrificed everything to educate him for 20 years and now he cannot even find a job.

Despite the hero’s waywardness, the film evokes traditional values of filial duty and religion – the hero’s friend is a pious painter of ‘thangka’ or Tibetan scroll-banners – and in the end he decides to leave Kathmandu’s corrupt urban environment and return to his native land, India, with his schoolmate sweetheart.

Director Pema Dhondup says he went to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship to study filmmaking so that he could ”tell our story, of our community, of our lost generation – a contemporary story of Tibetan youth”.

Being ”shot on a zero budget”, everything is donated, nobody paid, and much of the funding coming through benefactors. Because of its low-budget, experimental nature, the film will be targeted toward international film festival audiences and, it is hoped, after some recognition, might then try to woo mainstream cinema-goers.

”This is the generation that has grown up, but never seen our own country – we grew up with images of torture, occupation, insult. The story is not fiction – this is our life experience, what has happened to us, it is a reality weaved into a fictitious story, called ‘The Four Harmonious Friends’,” says Dhondup.

The title of the film – which is about four best friends and what happens to them – refers ironically to one of the animal fables told by the Buddha in the ‘Jataka Tales’, about the unlikely friendship of an elephant, monkey, rabbit and bird, and how they each help one another through their disparate talents.

That there are several Tibetan-made films coming out at the same time, and on similar subject matters does not dismay Dhondup, who sees the media not only as the message but as a means of empowerment.

”Our time has come. We want (our community) to be on par with everyone else. So why not making movies too? If other Tibetans think that they can make their own movie too, then we will have done our job!” he says.

Like Pema Dondup, filmmakers Tenzing and Ritu, both 44, received film training in California and had previously done the internationally acclaimed documentary ‘The Reincarnation of Kensur Rinpoche’.

From the success of Bertolucci’s popular treatment of Tibetan Buddhism, Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche, a reincarnate lama himself who was also an advisor to Bertolucci, made his own film called ‘The Cup’ (1999), an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

The quirky film was about Tibetan-exile monks who secretly try to watch the football World Cup on a rented television in their remote monastery.

Having organised a Tibetan Film Festival in Delhi a few years ago, Tenzing and Ritu adamantly insist that not only was Hollywood not an inspiration for them, but ”to counter such rosy, spiritual-laden descriptions of Tibet in mainstream Western cinema, we were driven to make our film”.

Along with Hollywood actor and Tibetan rights activist Richard Gere, who gave ”seed money”, Bertolucci’s British-based producer, Jeremy Thomas, is also backing Tenzing and Ritu’s forthcoming White Crane Production film, budgeted at under half a million dollars.

”It (‘Poison Charm’) will be shot in DV (digital video),” says Tenzing, ”and blown up to 35mm. Shooting is scheduled to begin in November or December in Delhi and Dharamsala.

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