His videos accurately depicted Tibetan life today as it was experienced by the people, free of the prejudices that had long been attached to their culture.
Pema Tseden passed away on Monday in Tibet. She was a writer and filmmaker who, under heavy scrutiny from Chinese censors, gave an honest portrayal of current Tibetan life. He was 53.
He was a professor at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, which released a statement to confirm his passing. It was not stated what caused his death or where it occurred.
Clichés have been used often to describe Tibet and its people incorrectly. In the eyes of the West, it was a dream paradise modeled after the portrayal of Shangri-La in British novelist James Hilton’s 1933 book “Lost Horizon.” Chinese Communist Party propaganda films portrayed Han cadres as liberators while depicting Tibetans as serfs or barbarians in need of rescue and rehabilitation.
Pema Tseden, who like the majority of Tibetans went by his two given names instead of his family name, claimed that as a youngster, he had yearned for realistic depictions of his land, people, and culture that were missing from current Hollywood and Chinese films.
In a 2019 interview, he said that “every element, even the smallest, was inaccurate,” including the attire, traditions, and manners. Because of this, I believed at the time that later, if someone created films with even a passing familiarity with the language, culture, and customs of my people, they would be quite different.
Pema Tseden seldom used images of Tibet’s growing Chinese population, which increased after the Red Army occupied Tibet in 1951, in his movies. He avoided mentioning the Dalai Lama, who is seen in China as favoring Tibetan independence, in order to avoid being subject to Chinese censorship. This enabled him to address bigger issues like the loss of traditions and identity in the face of technology without avoiding overtly political comments.
He was the first Tibetan filmmaker active in China to produce a full-length movie exclusively in Tibetan. Additionally, he was the first Tibetan filmmaker to get a degree from the esteemed Beijing Film Academy, which produced many of the nation’s top directors. However, he was compelled to submit screenplays in Chinese for assessment and was subject to further screening by state censors, like other Chinese artists who explore ethnic minorities and religion.
Tenzing Sonam, a Tibetan writer and filmmaker who lives in Dharamshala, India, said by phone: “His challenge, of course, was to make films that would reflect a Tibetan sense of identity, a Tibetan cultural sensibility, while not upsetting the Chinese authorities.” Pema Tseden expertly straddled that precarious edge.
He portrayed typical Tibetan experiences in “The Silent Holy Stones” (2005), including monks watching television and peasants practicing for a New Year’s opera. Additionally, the authority of the state and the challenges of privatizing ancestral lands were explored in “Old Dog” (2011), which included pictures of barbed-wire fences snaking across the Tibetan grasslands.
His films were “not just about Tibet,” according to Tsering Shakya, a Tibetan historian and academic at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who made this statement in an interview. This is about China and the people who are suffering as a result of that country’s economic miracle.
Chinese viewers and the film industry started to embrace Tibetan as a language utilized on the big screen as Pema Tseden’s influence expanded. And his films created an altogether new genre that some referred to as the Tibetan New Wave by fusing the oral storytelling and music traditions of Tibet with contemporary filming techniques.
According to Shelly Kraicer, a curator and scholar who specialized in Chinese cinema and who prepared translations for several of Pema Tseden’s films, “the stories his films contained — which are always painstakingly framed and exquisitely modulated — speak powerful truths in the gentlest of voices.” He is a significant global filmmaker.
He worked to create a close-knit community of Tibetan filmmakers, including Jigme Trinley, Sonthar Gyal, Dukar Tserang, Lhapal Gyal, and Pema Tseden’s son, Sonthar Gyal, all of whom went on to become independent film directors. Drivers, helpers, and other crew workers sometimes played many parts, acting as extras and training performers in regional accents.
Pema Tseden was known to Françoise Robin, a professor of Tibetan language and literature at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris, for more than 20 years. “He created from scratch an embryonic Tibetan film circle, film industry,” she stated over the phone. He is a very loyal buddy. Some of his employees stayed with him for ten years.
Pema Tseden was born on December 3, 1969, in Qinghai Province, which is a part of Tibet’s northern Amdo area. Both farmers and herders, his parents were.
His grandpa reared him, and after school he was required to type out Buddhist texts by hand. This practice gave him an early passion for Tibetan language and culture. Prior to studying Tibetan literature and translation at the Northwest University for Nationalities in Lanzhou, he worked as a teacher for four years. After that, he spent many years working as a government servant in his area of origin.
He began releasing short tales in both Tibetan and Chinese that were set in Tibet and featured characters who were faced with radical change in 1991. They emphasized the value of developing a relationship with animals and the natural world by illuminating “the complexity of life in the simplest language,” according to Jessica Yeung, a lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University who translated Pema Tseden’s works and knew him for ten years. Later, he turned several of his tales into motion pictures.
He released “The Silent Holy Stones” and numerous more films to great acclaim after attending the Beijing Film Academy in the early 2000s. Ten years later, “Tharlo” (2015) had its Venice Film Festival debut. The film follows the journey of a shepherd who must leave his remote community to apply for a government ID. It received multiple honors, including Taiwan’s Golden Horse Award for best script adaptation. Within a few years, it also rose to prominence among Tibetans as a key work for budding filmmakers.
In an undated interview, Pema Tseden said that “a Tibetan film should show Tibetan life,” according to a recent Kangba TV broadcast in Tibetan. “In my situation, I wanted my movies to definitely include people who are Tibetan, who would all speak Tibetan, and whose conduct and style of thinking were Tibetan. I wanted this from my first movie ahead. This is what distinguishes Tibetan cinema.
His greater notoriety aided Pema Tseden’s later flicks. Produced by the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s Jet Tone Films, “Jinpa” (2018) tells the story of a truck driver who hits a sheep before picking up a hitchhiker. It had its world debut at the Venice Film Festival, where it took home the Orizzonti Award for outstanding script. The Venice Film Festival saw the world debut of “Balloon” (2019), which is about a family struggling with an unplanned pregnancy in the midst of Chinese family planning restrictions. The post-production phase of the upcoming movie “Snow Leopard,” which explores the precarious coexistence of people and carnivorous animals, is now under progress. He was working on another movie when he passed away.
There was no immediate information about surviving save his son.