NPR logo
Director Seeks To Capture Life In Modern Tibet
  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Director Seeks To Capture Life In Modern Tibet



Another highly sensitive topic in China is Tibet. The exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, has accused China of cultural genocide since the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1951. Now, we're going to hear about a Tibetan who has reached a new cultural milestone. He is the son of nomads and the first film director in China ever to shoot movies entirely in Tibetan.

His last film just won the Grand Jury Prize at Shanghai's International Film Festival. In his first interview with Western media, he spoke to NPR's Louisa Lim in Shanghai.

LOUISA LIM: Pema Tseden's Tibet is not the Tibet we expect to see. His is not the land of soaring peaks and picturesque monasteries. It's a land of stark, brown hills and squat, one-story, featureless, brick houses.

Pema Tseden, who's also known as Wanma Caidan, is setting the record straight. For too many years, he says, Tibet has been portrayed by outsiders, pandering to their own imagination.

Mr. PEMA TSEDEN (Filmmaker): (Through Translator) I think Tibet has always been mythologized and worshipped and made more remote. People's psychological expectations and experiences of Tibet are stuck in the past. They don't understand the new Tibet.

LIM: His new film, "The Search," is literally a journey through new Tibet. It looks like a documentary, but it isn't. The camera's perched in the back of the car, recording the love stories told by the passengers to kill time on their search.

The movie follows a film crew looking for a singer to perform the part of Tibetan opera character Prince Drime Kunden. This deeply symbolic character epitomizes selflessness and the virtue of charity. He is a previous incarnation of Buddha, who gave away all his possessions and his children and wife to those in need and who eventually plucks out his own eyes.

But in modern-day Tibet, the film crew struggles to find anyone who can remember or perform the story.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Search")

(Soundbite of music)

A Tibetan opera troupe consists of girls performing dances using butter churns as props but who can't actually sing Tibetan opera.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Search")

Unidentified Child (Actor): (As character) P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Zed.

LIM: A child monk in a monastery recites the English alphabet for his audition for the film crew.

(Soundbite of laughter)

They see a Tibetan Charlie Chaplin, who leaves them in stitches. And a man who used to sing the part of Drime Kunden, performing in a nightclub. Drunken and furious, the nightclub singer tells them he hates the role and asks them whether they really believe love still exists in this world.

Director Pema Tseden says, on one level, the film reflects a search for Tibet's disappearing culture.

Mr. TSEDEN: (Through Translator) It's being buffeted by modernization. It's not obvious, but it's being affected. It's like those sacred stones with Buddhist sutras carved on them. They've been standing like that for hundreds or thousands of years with no apparent change, but in fact, they're being slowly changed all the time. I think Tibetan areas right now are like that.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Search")

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: In this scene from "The Search, students trudge around the playground, dancing halfheartedly to traditional songs as the film crew confers in the background. This single shot lasts two and a half minutes, typical of the pace and style of the film.

The festival jury called it the most challenging film they saw, almost a meditation in patience and an exercise in it. Pema Tseden explains.

Mr. TSEDEN: (Through Translator) It's a traditional Tibetan aesthetic. Tibetan tankas, or wall hangings, are like that. They're like a panorama. All the story is in one picture. It's very peaceful, but it's very detailed.

LIM: This film and its director tread a delicate tightrope, tiptoeing around controversial political issues. As a Tibetan film, the picture had stricter censorship than other Chinese films, receiving vetting by the United Front Department and the Religious Affairs Bureau, as well as the State Administration of Film, Radio and Television.

It's Pema Tseden's second film. His first won a Golden Rooster, a major Chinese award, in 2005, the year Beijing celebrated 100 years of film. It was celebrated as China's first film made in Tibetan, in this case, Amdo dialect, with a Tibetan director and crew.

Mr. TSEDEN: (Through Translator) Lots of people asked me if I felt it was a very glorious and very proud moment, but I felt very sad that it's taken 100 years to have a Tibetan film. I'm not proud. I think it's a matter of great sorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: At the end of his new film, "The Search," the crew finds its singer, now a teacher whose government job won't allow him to go home to sing for the traditional festivals. And despite the long search, the film director can't decide whether he's right for the part, a bittersweet conclusion perhaps reflecting Tibetans' dislocation and doubts about their own identity.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

(Soundbite of music)


You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.