Lens on Tibet, a dedicated look at the cinema of the Tibetan Plateau from 2005 to the present, is a special presentation of MoMA’s ContemporAsian screening series that runs August 21–31. This 12-film selection of recent feature-length documentaries and dramatic narratives celebrates the emergence of the new Tibetan film culture onto the global stage.
The series was organized in collaboration with the New York–based Trace Foundation, which was founded in 1993 to support the continuity, development, and vitality of Tibetan communities, working with people to better their lives and reinforce the uniqueness of Tibetan culture, language, and places. Supporting the growth of an authentic Tibetan film culture is part of the Trace Foundation’s cultural work; this exhibition marks the first showcase of the films and the filmmakers they have supported.
With a majestic mountain landscape at a staggering average elevation of 16,000 feet, covering an area of nearly a million square miles, the Tibetan Plateau is among the highest and largest plateaus in the world, with mountains, forests, glaciers, lakes, grasslands, alpine tundra, and other remarkable geographical features. It is also the traditional homeland of the Tibetan people and other ethnic groups such as Monpas, Qiang, and Lhobas, many of whom live as nomadic herders and subsistence farmers in the remote, beautiful, and often-inhospitable region. Tibetan Buddhism is the main religion, formed from Buddhism and the ancient Tibetan indigenous beliefs of Bon. The Tibetan Plateau is the ethnocultural region of Tibet; the Tibet Autonomous Region was established in 1965 after the incorporation of Tibet in 1951 by the People’s Republic of China.
All films made in China require approval by the government; Tibetan-made films and films on Tibetan subjects require special approval. Therefore, the emergence of a Tibetan-language and cultural cinema—of feature-length narrative and documentary films—made in the region over the last decade is of special interest and note. An extraordinary group of emerging and more seasoned Tibetan filmmakers from this scene will be present to discuss their films throughout the series, including Dorje Tsering Chenaktsang, Pema Tseden, Sonthar Gyal, Khashem Gyal, and Pema Tashi—and some are in North America for the very first time. Tibetan lamas, scholars, and filmmakers, such as Columbia University Tibetan scholar Robert Barnett; Senior Vice President of Kino Lorber Elizabeth Sheldon; and filmmakers in the exhibition such as Jocelyn Ford, Bari Pearlman and Donagh Coleman will also be present to deepen the discussions about Tibetan films and filmmaking over the next 10 days.In a seminar lecture at Oxford in 2003, Dorje Tsering Chenaktsang became one of the first Tibetan intellectuals to publicly examine the proliferation of Chinese film productions that featured Tibet, beginning in the 1950s, in contrast to the vast lack of Tibetan-produced film (an example of which first appeared, on television, in 1993). Referred to by his pen name, Jangbu, by those who know him, he began as a free-verse poet and magic-realist short story writer before turning to filmmaking; his research inspired his own turn to film as well as that of others. One of the most prolific Tibetan documentary directors today, he focuses on stories of everyday people that reveal aspects of Tibetan spirituality, customs, and life, and the paradoxes of tradition and modernity. He has three films represented in the showcase, including the North American premiere of Yartsa Rinpoche (Precious Caterpillar) (2014) about the impact of yartsa gunbu—a rare caterpillar fungus, found only in the Himalayan region, with reputed medicinal and orgasmic qualities that are valued by speculators worldwide at prices higher than gold—on the economy and lifestyle of rural Tibet; his first film, Tantric Yogi (2005), about Ngakpa, an ancient Tibetan spiritual and cultural tradition for lay people; and Kokonor (2005), about the transition of the sacred and pure high plateau lake into a tourist industry, a source of needed income for nomadic Tibetans and an ecological disaster in the making.
Pema Tseden, a writer and narrative filmmaker, became the first Tibetan to graduate from Beijing Film Academy, in 2005. His dramatic feature film Silent Holy Stones (2005), about a young monk who is distracted from his studies by a television series based on the Chinese Buddhist classic Journey to the West, won China’s most important award for emerging directors in 2006. This film preceded his features The Search (2009) and Old Dog (2011) (which was featured in a weeklong presentation at MoMA in 2013). His films, known for their nuanced complexity and focus on Tibetan people and life, are credited with establishing the beginnings of new Tibetan cinema.
Sonthar Gyal, who studied with Pema Tseden at Beijing Film Academy, has worked with Tseden as a cinematographer and art director. Gyal’s first feature as director, Sun Beaten Path, based on a true story, recounts the heartbreaking journey of a young man who seeks redemption for causing a tragic, accidental death. In this road movie where very little appears to take place, an old man (who is also character out of Tibetan mythology) mysteriously reappears and guides the young man during his return to family and home.Daughters of Wisdom, directed by New York–based Bari Pearlman, tells the unique story of the first monastery for female monks in modern Tibet. In the eastern Tibetan plateau of Kham, the Buddhist path is traditionally chosen by a son of a herding or subsistence farming family. But Lama Norlha Rinpoche returned to Tibet from exile in the 1980s to found the Kala Rongo Monastery, where women can pursue spiritual training and education. Lama Norlha Rinpoche and Pearlman will be present at the screening.
Dan Smyer Yu and Pema Tashi’s must-see Embrace (2011) beautifully captures the relationship between human communities, gods, Buddha Dharma, and the mountainous landscape of the Tibetan plateau. It is incredible to be in the middle of New York City, in a theater at MoMA, and to feel the essence of a place and the presence of its gods and creation stories through the sheer intimacy and physicality of a film.