What may seem so amazing at the ongoing Shanghai International Film Festival is the dominance of Tibetan cinema. Among the 14 contenders for the festival’s top Golden Goblet Prize, two are from Tibet, and the duo is part of the three titles from China.
The rugged terrain of the Tibet plateau -- which has been part of China since the late 1950s -- forms the backdrop for the two movies: De Lan by Liu Jie and Zhang Yang’s Soul on a String. Most importantly, these two films seek to tell us that China is beginning to change the way its cinema depicts its minority communities, Tibetans in particular, whose standoff with the majority population has been legendary.
“Before, Tibet was usually portrayed in Chinese movies in several ways,” said Wu Jueren, who selects Chinese cinema for the festival. “There were the socialist propaganda films, which were meant to show ethnic harmony and national unity, and the commercial movies, which often portrayed Tibet as a kind of mythical healing land where people would go to escape.”
It is true that such films still get made, but in recent years, Chinese directors have been exploring different ways of telling Tibetan stories. Tibet is a subject that is not only sensitive, but also highly political.
For decades, Beijing has been accusing Tibet’s spiritual leader, Dalai Lama (who escaped into India in 1959 and has since then been living in Dharamshala, which today is his headquarters), of fighting for Tibetan independence. In 2008, there was great tension in China after a Tibetan rebellion which forced China to impose a crackdown on the region.
Despite all this, it is heartening to note that moviemakers are trying to capture the essence of life in Tibet more accurately than ever before,” said Pema Tseden, a Tibetan filmmaker and member of the jury for this year’s Golden Goblet. “They are starting to let go of the old stereotypes.”
An important reason for this kind of “demystification of Tibet” is the rise of tourism to the plateau. In recent times, hundreds of Chinese and others from different corners of the world have been able to travel to Tibet and see for themselves what that land offered. Not long ago, one could learn about Tibet only from stories and, well, hearsay.
Two recent movies -- Tseden’s Tharlo (2015) and Sonthar Gyal’s River (2015) -- considered to be part of the emerging Tibetan New Wave -- have presented an unbiased view of life on the plateau. To many, these works appeared to show Tibet without its mysticism.
“These young Tibetan filmmakers are trying to make us look very hard without giving us answers...
Movies made by Tibetans about themselves can serve as a kind of reference point for non-Tibetan filmmakers,” said Zhang, whose previous works included Shower (2000) and Getting Home (2007). “They push us to break away from the traditional movie narrative which looks at Tibetan culture as novelty.”
Zhang spent several months in 2013 in Tibet while making Soul on a String -- which has a documentary feel about it. The story traces a group of Tibetans on a 1200-mile journey through Lhasa. “It was important to me to first understand Tibetans - what their everyday life was like and their religion - before I felt ready to make Soul on a String,” he said.
De Lan is a period piece set in the Tibetan area of Yunnan Province during the 1980s, and focusses on a young ethnic Chinese, who travels to small villages to offer loans and collect interest. In one of the villages, he falls in love with a local woman, De Lan.
It is a very sensitive subject, and De Lan’s helmer, Liu, said he had tough time getting his work past the censors.
However, most directors in China keen on telling Tibetan stories feel that this is the start of a trend to present the real Tibet, minus its embellishments like scenic beauty and exoticism.