By the time of his sudden and unexpected death in May 2023, the Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden had changed the face of cinema from China. He was not only China’s first ethnic Tibetan feature filmmaker, but also an internationally awarded and recognized auteur. Furthermore, his films corrected the existing cinematic imagery of Tibet by countering both Chinese and Hollywood exoticism with a cycle of realist films that articulate the view from within the Tibetan lifeworld. In this essay, Chris Berry argues Pema had recently embarked on a second phase that explored the interior world of Tibetans with explorations of subjectivity, including the visions and thoughts women characters, who were more central than in his earlier films. Finally, by supporting the careers of other Tibetan filmmakers and inspiring a younger generation, Pema’s legacy will continue to grow beyond his own films.

Soon after I woke up on May 8 last year, I received a text message with the shocking news that Pema Tseden had died. The Tibetan film director was only fifty-three years old, appeared to be in good health, and was at the peak of his career. Although not a commercial filmmaker, he was at the time of his death China’s most interesting and significant active filmmaker in many people’s eyes, including my own. I had known him for over a decade and regarded him as a welcoming friend who always tried to help me understand the situation of Tibetan filmmaking in China whenever I visited. I still find it hard to believe that I will never meet him again.

It was reported that Pema had been scouting locations in the Lhasa region when he suffered heart failure. In the immediate aftermath of receiving this distressing news, some speculated privately about whether he might have been assassinated. But they quickly realized that this was highly unlikely. In very polarized circumstances, Pema had performed the seemingly impossible feat of being loved and admired not only by cinephiles around the world and Tibetans inside and outside China, but also by Chinese filmmakers and audiences, and even the Chinese authorities.

How Pema managed to make films loved by such disparate audiences, in such difficult, politicized times, is a question I pose in this tribute to Pema and his films. I believe that the same relatively open narratives that won acclaim as art films and awards at festivals also made it possible for people with absolutely opposed perspectives on Tibet to accept the stories his films tell. Having completed a realist cycle of films that countered existing cinematic stereotypes of an exotic Tibet with a new image from the inside, Pema had in recent years embarked on a new direction, focusing more on the inner lives of Tibetans. Tragically, this second phase of his filmmaking career was cut short just as it had begun to take off.1

Pema Tseden (པད་མ་ཚེ་བརྟན།, known in Chinese as 万玛才旦) was born into a nomadic herder’s family in Thrika County (ཁྲི་ག་, known in Chinese as 贵德) in the Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province on December 3, 1969. Both his names are given names, and he was not known by a family name.2 The area where he was born is the part of the larger Tibetan cultural realm in China known as Amdo to Tibetans, most of which is in Qinghai Province and not the Tibet Autonomous Region. He was the only one of three siblings to complete high school, after which he went to study for his BA in the Department of Tibetan Literature at Northwest Nationalities University in Lanzhou between 1991 and 1995. In 1991, he published his first fiction, and he remained a prolific and award-winning writer of short stories and novels in both Tibetan and Chinese throughout his life. Some of his literary work has been translated into English and French.3 Later on, his stories and novels would often serve as sources for his film scripts, helping to cement his auteur reputation. After working as a teacher and civil servant in Hainan Prefecture, he returned to the Northwest Nationalities University to complete an MA in translation studies between 2000 and 2002.

Pema’s move into the film world began with admission to the Film and Television Directing program in the Department of Literature at the world-famous Beijing Film Academy (BFA) in 2002. After graduating in 2004, he returned in 2006 for an MA in the Department of Directing, graduating in 2009. Shortly after his initial stay at the BFA, he completed his first feature film, The Silent Holy Stones (ལྷང་འཇགས་ཀྱི་མ་ཎི་རྡོ་འབུམ།; 静静的嘛呢石, 2005). It won the Best Directorial Debut at China’s Golden Rooster Awards in the year of its release, and the Asian New Talent Award for Best Director at the Shanghai International Film Festival the following year. His second stay at the BFA supported him through the completion of his second feature, The Search (འཚོལ།; 寻找智美更登, 2009). In the years to come, he released five more feature films: Old Dog (ཁྱི་རྒན།; 老狗, 2011), The Sacred Arrow (གཡང་མདའ།; 五彩神箭, 2014), Tharlo (ཐར་ལོ།; 塔洛, 2015), Jinpa (ལག་དམར།; 撞死了一只羊, 2018), and Balloon (དབུགས་ལྒང་།; 气球, 2019). Among the numerous awards he won at international film festivals, the Golden Lion at Venice in 2015 for Tharlo stands out as a pinnacle of recognition. At the time of his death, editing had been completed on his final feature, Snow Leopard (གངས་གཟིག; 雪豹, 2023).

Pema Tsedan receiving the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2015.

Pema Tsedan receiving the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2015.

Close modal

Pema is known widely as China’s first Tibetan director of feature films, in contrast to other Tibetan filmmakers operating in the diaspora, such as Khyentse Norbu (The Cup, ཕོར་པ།, 1999), Tenzing Sonam (Dreaming Lhasa, ལྷ་སའི་མི་ལམ།, 2005, codirected with Ritu Sarin), and Neten Chokling (Milarepa, མི་ལ་རས་པའི་རྣམ་ཐར།།, 2006). In his relatively brief career, Pema rapidly established himself as the most prolific and prominent Tibetan feature director. During the COVID lockdowns in 2021, I participated in an online discussion with him after a screening of The Silent Holy Stones as part of the Chinese Cinema Season London. Thinking back to 2005, the year of the film’s release, Pema recalled his excitement about becoming the first Tibetan feature filmmaker in China in the same year that China celebrated its hundredth year of film production. But he also had mixed feelings: it was wonderful that China now had its first Tibetan feature-film director, but also sobering that it had taken a hundred years of filmmaking for China to get to this point.

When asked about why he wanted to make films, Pema often expressed a dissatisfaction with existing images of Tibet. In an interview, he stated:

When I was a child, there were many films about Tibet. I have seen many of these films. But these films about Tibet, while I was watching them, left me wanting more. And I am not the only one. Many of my friends feel the same way. These films were about Tibetan life, but the dialogue was in Chinese. Whether it was the clothes, the customs, the manners, every element, even the smallest, was inaccurate.4

The most fundamental and immediately evident change in Pema’s films is that his characters speak Tibetan, not Mandarin. The choice of spoken language in Chinese cinema is a highly contested issue with a complex history. As well as the different languages of the minority ethnic groups, the Han Chinese majority has a multitude of mutually incomprehensible spoken languages. In the name of modernization, governments have promoted the use of Mandarin as a common spoken language across the whole of China, and they have frequently required its use in media such as radio and film. (The banning of filmmaking in Cantonese following the arrival of sound in the 1930s, even before the Communist government was in place, gave a major boost to the film industry in Hong Kong, which was at the time outside Chinese government control.) With regard to aesthetics, the focus on modernization has fostered the perception of realism as the only acceptable cinematic style. This contradiction between language standardization and a realist aesthetic that reflects the multiple spoken languages circulating among the public in the People’s Republic has opened up a space in which Pema and many other filmmakers have been able to introduce spoken languages other than Mandarin in recent years.5

Pema’s films not only emphasize accuracy of cultural detail. They are also so different from Hollywood’s idealized fantasies that Kamila Hladiková has called them “Shangri-la deconstructed.”6 They are equally far removed from the negative, feudal-theocracy stereotypes of older, Mao-era Chinese films. The films of the first phase of Pema’s screen career are marked by a conscious effort to inscribe a different screen image of Tibet’s physical and social space, with new motifs. Gone are serfs in chains, beloved of films about the takeover of Tibet by the People’s Liberation Army from China. Also absent are lurid images of customs such as vultures eating corpses in what are known as sky burials. (Indeed, when the father of the protagonist in Balloon dies, he is taken to be cremated.) Also missing are the aerial sequences sweeping across the bleak but magnificent landscape, accompanied by the sonorous trumpeting of long Tibetan dungchen horns. Instead of these exoticizing images of Tibet—some idealizing, some denigrating—all of Pema’s films feature everyday Amdo settings and are shot from an insider perspective. Rather than showcasing the Himalayas in soaring drone shots, Pema’s films situate the viewer among the people on the ground, with the mountains as backdrop.

Pema’s Tibet is a contemporary, modern environment marked by the growth of the market economy and the ensuing frictions with established practices. As Dan Smyer Yu points out, the religious customs of everyday life are central among these traditional practices.7 In The Silent Holy Stones, the mani prayer stones referred to in the title are inscribed with Buddhist mantras and made by an elderly man whom the young protagonist encounters on his journeys between the monastery and his family home. These scripted and sacred stones stand in sharp contrast to the VCD box set of The Monkey King that the apprentice monk discovers at home and values at least as highly. In The Search (2009), a director’s quest for actors to perform an ancient Tibetan legend is conducted in an SUV. In Old Dog, a family’s beloved Tibetan mastiff is at risk of becoming a fashionable and highly valuable commodity on the Chinese pet market. In Tharlo, the contrast between a shepherd’s life in the mountains and the city life that leads to his ruin is presented as a conflict between the old and the new. As Anup Grewal has pointed out, Pema’s films resist a homogenizing or exoticizing perspective, instead benefiting from his insider point of view to show many different ways of being Tibetan.8

Pema acknowledges Abbas Kiarostami as a great inspiration.9 He immediately recognized a topographical similarity between his Tibet and Kiarostami’s Iran in the plateau landscapes with few if any trees, and even the flat-roofed houses. But more than this, he realized Kiarostami’s films offered him a starting point for filming Tibet in the new way that he was seeking. In all his early films, Pema adopted Kiarostami’s realist preference for shooting on location, using long takes and also plenty of long shots.

Furthermore, like Kiarostami, Pema likes a journey. As I have argued in detail elsewhere, Pema’s early films are road movies in which the protagonists traverse the contemporary Tibetan cultural realm.10 The shape of the journey tends to be circular, like that of the filmmaker looking for actors in The Search, or a linear back-and-forth, as in The Silent Holy Stones, Old Dog, and Tharlo. The Silent Holy Stones swings between the monastery and the young monk’s family home, always via the mani maker. In Old Dog, both father and son travel up and down between their hillside farm and the town in the valley, a pattern repeated in the journey between the hillside pasture and the town in Tharlo. In this way, these films map a lived territory that can perhaps also be understood as a patrimony, given that these protagonists are also male. The back-and-forth movements are more than just geographic; they mark an oscillation and a tension between older lifestyles and more-modern ones: the monastery and the home with the television set in The Silent Holy Stones, the farm and the city in Old Dog, and the mountain pasture for the sheep and the town in Tharlo.

In Old Dog, a family’s beloved Tibetan mastiff is at risk from the Chinese pet market.

In Old Dog, a family’s beloved Tibetan mastiff is at risk from the Chinese pet market.

Close modal

Another tendency that draws from Kiarostami, as Grewal notes, is the use of techniques that encourage audiences to question or “look again” rather than take things at face value. These include showing people, events, and landscapes indirectly, their images reflected on glass surfaces or their faces captured in the midst of reacting to the action.11 For example, The Search prompts the viewer to consider the inner life of the young woman selected by the director to play the female lead in his adaptation of the legend of Drimé Kunden. As the director, his colleagues, and the young woman drive around in their attempt to find her former boyfriend, who she insists must play the male lead, the men in the car talk while she sits silently in the back, her head covered with a scarf. The camera watches her as she listens to them, creating a sense of distance from the men at the same time as encouraging the viewer to wonder what she thinks of their tales.

Looking again is part of a process of creating open narratives in Pema’s films. The viewer must decide whether the little monk’s enthusiasm for VCDs in The Silent Holy Stones is a sign of cultural decline, or—because his favorite TV series is The Monkey King (a recounting of the legend of the sutras’ arrival in China)—modernization of tradition. In Tharlo, the female barber that the eponymous title character visits in the city is in many ways a femme fatale who leads him to his doom. But Pema complicates these generic expectations by including scenes that present Tharlo from her point of view, while he is unaware of being observed. The possibilities created by this camera position are multiple; is the barber sizing him up as a target? Or perhaps at this point in the narrative she is genuinely fascinated with him? Either way, any easy identification with Tharlo is broken, and a more open narrative is produced.

Something else that Pema shared with Kiarostami was the particular challenges of filmmaking under conditions of strict censorship. Privately, Pema indicated that getting his films through the Film Bureau’s censorship procedures in China was never simple. For any topic considered “sensitive” (min’gan), the Film Bureau consults outside experts, placing the films under particularly close scrutiny. The subject of Tibet is always sensitive in China. As far as I know, Pema never went on the record about any changes required to his films, and I never pressed him for details off the record either. However, it is perhaps no accident that, facing such circumstances, Pema decided to make his first feature film, The Silent Holy Stones, as a children’s movie, films for children being regarded as relatively innocuous by the authorities. Kiarostami likewise embraced this strategy in a number of his early works.

The almost complete absence of Chinese characters in Pema’s films also helps them avoid censorship. The few such characters that exist, such as the man who wants to buy the Tibetan mastiff in Old Dog and the balloon seller at the end of Balloon, are minor roles. Otherwise, all the main characters, as well as figures who embody officialdom—such as the policemen in Tharlo and the doctors helping to enforce birth-control policies in Balloon—are Tibetan. By limiting the relationships between Chinese and Tibetans, Pema minimizes the risks that come with depicting interactions between these ethnic groups. Because ethnic tension is a highly sensitive subject for the Chinese authorities, the slightest whiff of friction could get a film into trouble with the censors. On the other hand, overly optimistic portrayals might be unconvincing for audiences. Avoiding the topic altogether is a safer path.

Some audiences have objected that the lack of Chinese characters does not reflect the reality of the Tibetan world today. However, I have heard Pema respond, when challenged at public events, that his films are set in areas where Chinese migrants are rarely found and that precisely when they take place is not clear, meaning that the stories might predate the influx of ethnic Chinese into certain areas. Whatever Pema’s reasons, the absence of Chinese characters in his films, in addition to sidestepping the risky topic of ethnic tensions, underlines his intention to capture contemporary Tibetan, rather than Han, life and culture.

Minimizing Chinese characters also has the advantage of obscuring the source and vectors of the modernization process that is present in all his films and that drives much of the narrative development. This ambiguity allows audiences with very different views and positions to accept his films. For the Chinese authorities and mainstream audiences, modernity is something that arrived from the West on a gunboat during the Opium Wars of the mid–nineteenth century: a huge and difficult challenge. Pema’s films can be understood as taking this common theme in Chinese cinema and adapting it to the Tibetan context, integrating the Tibetan response to the challenge of modernity into one that is shared by all the ethnic groups in the People’s Republic. On the other hand, many of those who are critical of the Chinese role in Tibet believe that the modernity experienced by Tibet today is Chinese modernity and is responsible for the destruction of Tibetan culture. The silences, ambiguities, and openness of Pema’s films accommodate both of these potential interpretations and others, helping make his films welcomed by all.

When I first met Pema over a decade ago, he was nervous about taking part in Q&As after screenings. He knew that well-meaning audience members would probably ask difficult questions that might cause trouble for him. But he quickly learned how to sidestep the problems. His open narratives and long-shot, long-take brand of realism fit easily into the international festival aesthetic at the same time that he was embraced by Tibetans inside and outside China. Having mastered the art of public tightrope walking, he saw his steady rise take a tumble when he was detained at Xining Airport in Qinghai in 2016 after walking back into the baggage area to pick up a bag he had forgotten. Two days later, he was in hospital with visible injuries incurred during his detention. In a striking show of his colleagues’ concern, the Directors’ Guild of China put out a statement demanding an explanation.12 I doubt they would have dared to do this unless they were aware that the authorities already valued Pema’s success and recognition as evidence that their Tibet policies were successful. Even so, it was a remarkable and unexpected move. Fortunately, Pema was quickly released and continued his ascendent trajectory, becoming one of the highest-profile Tibetans in China. Over the last few years, many more people in China saw magazine profiles of him dressed and styled in designer brands, or perhaps attended a master class with him at a film festival, than saw his films.

In the wake of Pema’s death, I was present at and participated in various conversations about his oeuvre. More than once, people expressed the belief that Old Dog and Tharlo were his greatest works. At first, I agreed. But then, as I thought things over, I began to develop a slightly different understanding. I have come to think that Old Dog and Tharlo indeed marked the culmination of the first, realist phase of his aesthetic career, described above. However, I have also come to believe that Jinpa and Balloon launched a new and equally exciting second phase.

The focus on the vicissitudes and contradictions of modernization continues in this second phase of Pema’s cinematic career. The eponymous Jinpa is a truck driver concerned about the soul of a sheep he accidentally runs over. Balloon brings together modern problems like birth control with ancient beliefs like reincarnation when the characters have to choose between aborting an unplanned pregnancy and persisting because the fetus might be the reincarnation of the protagonist’s father. However, these two films strike the viewer as different from his earlier realist work immediately, because both feature scenes of subjective memory and imagination. One could say that with these films he launched a project of exploring the internal and subjective Tibetan world just as his earlier films explored the external and objective world.

Furthermore, his early films are road movies in which male characters traverse contemporary Tibet as though surveying their patrimony. Women are silent and subject to visual exclusion, as Yang Li has noted.13 Although he had already begun to create larger roles for women toward the end of the first phase of his work, in Jinpa and Balloon, female characters are as important as men. Not only do they have more-significant speaking roles, but they are also among the characters whose subjective vision the audience is invited to share.

The first half of Jinpa is still in the realist mode. Jinpa is a truck driver, so in a sense this is another road movie and appears at first to be dominated by male characters. But after some opening shots that place the truck on the road in a windy and rainy landscape, the camera places the viewer inside the cab of the truck, and into Jinpa’s headspace, as he listens to “O Sole Mio.” Although there is no subjective point of view, this intimacy marks a turn away from the repeated shots of protagonists set against the backdrop of a larger landscape common to his earlier films. When Jinpa picks up a hitchhiker, the focus is on the interactions between the two men. Jinpa is still upset about the sheep he ran over, and when he finds out the hitchhiker is on the way to seek revenge for his father’s murder, the possibility of a second death troubles him.

After he has dropped off the hitchhiker, consulted a lama about the soul of the sheep, and spent the night with an old lover, Jinpa sets out to find the hitchhiker, who it turns out is also called Jinpa. Arriving at a tavern where Jinpa the hitchhiker was the day before, Jinpa the truck driver asks the innkeeper to tell him what happened the day before. When she does so, a sort of flashback begins. But it is complicated by the presence of the current customers of the inn, rather than yesterday’s. It becomes difficult to know whose memory we are watching, and whether it is the past or the past and present jumbled up. The boundaries between individual beings become as blurred as those between past and present, and between the two Jinpas.

Furthermore, the woman innkeeper initiates and anchors the flashback. Indeed, in this way she also participates in the blurring of identities, making that blurring encompass not only the two Jinpas but herself as well. In the second half of the film, which takes place mostly indoors, she is as narratively significant as the two men who dominate the first half. And her triangulation of the situation inscribes the distanced, perhaps questioning “look again” perspective on the two men that is so characteristic of Pema’s films. In this way, her role amplifies those of women in Pema’s earlier films, in which women were onlookers or, as in the case of the actress who travels around with the men in the SUV in The Search, silent.

When quizzed at public events about what Françoise Robin calls this “uneasy relationship” with women in his early films, I often heard Pema give a pragmatic answer: historically, acting had not been seen as a respectable activity for Tibetan women and there was a shortage of Tibetan actresses who could take on speaking roles.14 However, even in The Search, the silent actress’s role is significant. Not only is her refusal to perform unless the men find her former boyfriend the trigger for the whole journey, but also her position as silent observer anchors the camerawork and generates distance for the viewer. By the time he made Tharlo, six years later, Pema had found a professional actor, Yangshik Tso, to take on his first significant female speaking role, that of the barber Yangtso, who is also the femme fatale who leads Tharlo into ruin. Again, the film achieves a greater level of nuance and complication by anchoring a number of shots of Tharlo from Yangtso’s perspective. Although, given the course of the film’s narrative, the audience is unlikely to identify with her character, her point of view inserts a degree of distance between the viewer and the title character.

With the innkeeper’s role, Jinpa continues Pema’s transition from films with individual male protagonists to films with multiple protagonists, including women. But it is Balloon that takes this tendency even further. It increases the number of significant female speaking roles to three, creates an ensemble cast of characters of both genders, narrates the story from multiple perspectives, and dives deeper into the intersubjective and subjective world of these characters with sequences that render their vision and communicate their emotional experience.

The innkeeper in Jinpa.

Balloon focuses on a Tibetan family that already has three boys, in accordance with the birth-control policy that allowed couples of minority ethnicities to have more than one child. However, they are not permitted a fourth. The title refers to the condoms that are part of their effort to prevent pregnancy but that their youngest children mistake for toy balloons and keep stealing from under the pillow. The same actor who played Jinpa in Jinpa, himself called Jinpa, appears again as Dargye, the husband. The three female roles are his wife, Drolkar, played by Sonam Wangmo, who played the innkeeper in Jinpa; her sister, played by Yangshik Tso from Tharlo; and her family-planning medic, Dr. Sodra, played by Kangchen Tsering.

Where wives tended to be silent, housebound, and subordinated to men in Pema’s earliest films, in Balloon Drolkar is an independent agent in her own right, perhaps even a second protagonist. Her husband uses the family motorbike to go back and forth with a stud ram to impregnant the ewes in his flock, but in her quest to control her own fertility, Drolkar uses the same motorbike to travel back and forth between the farm and the town where the family-planning clinic is located. While her husband is busy dealing with his father’s death, she handles a visit from her sister, now a nun after a scandalous affair. Inevitably, despite planning to get her tubes tied and asking for condoms from Dr. Sodra, Drolkar does get pregnant. Her husband is eager to keep the baby, thinking it must be the reincarnation of his recently deceased father. However, Drolkar is more pragmatic, knowing that they cannot afford the fines that would follow.

Pema gives Dargye one sustained subjective vision in the film. This occurs after his father dies and Dargye departs on the dawn journey to cremate him. With this act, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Pema is deliberately marking out a different direction in his films from the exoticizing cinema in which sky burials with vultures were such a common motif. Cloudy reflections in puddles and eerie music in the half-light capture someone walking upside down. Could it be his father’s soul departing? When the camera lifts from the puddle and the figure is observed upright, it turns out to be Dargye’s oldest son, Jamyang. This seemingly rational explanation is undermined when Jamyang calls out after “grandfather,” leaving an opening for the audience to fill in.

However, it is Drolkar who invokes the subjective world on two occasions. First, she tells her husband about an odd dream she has had concerning a ewe and a handsome ram they have brought in to mate with the flock. This resonates with her own situation. Second comes a blurry sequence, possibly also subjective and filmed in one long take. It seems Drolkar is looking at her own reflection in a window and then turns around to say goodbye to her sister, who says she is now dedicated to religion as she leaves. Although the details are never fully revealed, it seems the sister has had a disastrous affair with a schoolteacher and author, who also appears in the film. Is this scene Drolkar’s memory of her sister’s first departure, or her departure now after her return visit?

Female characters feature prominently in Balloon.

Female characters feature prominently in Balloon.

Close modal

Without giving away too many plot spoilers, let me just say that Balloon traces a series of complicated interactions between the cold rationality of government policy and the moral obligations of Tibetan culture, communicated through the inner thoughts and imaginations of the characters. This opposition is embodied most noticeably in the tension between China’s birth-control policy and the Tibetan conception of the fetus in Drolkar’s womb as the possible reincarnation of Dargye’s father. Encompassing the parallel narrative strands of the sister and her former lover, the young sons and the condoms they mistake for balloons, and the ewe that does not get pregnant, the film is at turns a humorous and deadly serious depiction of the lived emotions, imagination, and personal crises of contemporary Tibetan people as they grapple with the demands of modernity.

In retrospect, Balloon may be more multilayered and nuanced than any other film Pema Tseden made. It is certainly more directly concerned with government policies and religion than his previous films, and likewise gives more space to the subjective thoughts and anxieties they provoke. This achievement indicates that, far from being mistakes or aberrations, Jinpa and Balloon opened a new pathway toward a second career peak that Pema was well on his way toward at the time of his tragic death. He had completed one more film, The Snow Leopard. At the time of this writing I have yet to see it, and so I cannot say whether it extends the direction he was carving out with Jinpa and Balloon. But understanding those two films as a new departure for Pema makes me more aware than ever that he had so much more to give when his time was so cruelly cut short.

A quick look at Pema’s Chinese webpages on Douban—a site similar to IMDb, and one that I used liberally in putting together the biographical sketch at the beginning of this tribute—reveals numerous credits in addition to the feature films he directed and for which he is best known.15 They include documentaries, short films, and many films that he produced. The documentaries and short films confirm his wider commitment to recording Tibetan culture inside the People’s Republic.

Pema’s work as a producer highlights another important dimension of his contribution—namely, the nurturing of a whole new Tibetan film culture. Robert Barnett has written about how Pema’s fame inspired huge numbers of young Tibetans in China to start making videos.16 More directly, Pema encouraged people who had worked previously on his films, and especially other Tibetans, to make their own films. For example, Sonthar Gyal (ཟོན་ཐར་རྒྱལ, 松太加), director of features including The Sun-Beaten Path (དབུས་ལམ་གྱི་ཉི་མ།, 太阳总在左边, 2011), River (གཙང་པོ།, 河, 2015), and Ala Changso (ང་ཡི་ཆང་གསོལ་རོགས, 阿拉姜色, 2018), started out as Pema’s cinematographer and production designer on The Silent Holy Stones, The Search, and Old Dog. Lhapal Gyal (ལྷ་དཔལ་རྒྱལ།, 拉华加), director of Wangdrak’s Rain Boots (ཆུ་ལྷམ་ཆུང་ཆུང་།, 旺扎的雨靴, 2017), was inspired to go into filmmaking after seeing Pema’s Silent Holy Stones and started his career by working as an assistant director on Tharlo. Most recently, Pema’s own son Jigme Trinley (འཇིགས་མེད་འཕྲིན་ལས།, 久美成列) followed his father by graduating in directing from the Beijing Film Academy and directing his first feature film, One and Four (གཅིག་དང་བཞི།, 一个和四个), in 2021. All of these films have circulated widely both on the international film-festival circuit and inside China. For example, Sonthar Gyal’s Ala Changso won the Grand Jury Prize and Best Screenplay award at Shanghai, China’s leading international film festival, in 2018. Such films’ high profile has led to frequent references to a “Tibetan New Wave” in recent writing about Tibetan cinema. In fact, Patrick Frater refers to Pema as a “pioneer of the Tibetan New Wave” in his Variety report on Pema’s death.17

In addition to cultivating a strong Tibetan film culture for the future, Pema’s influence extends to the films themselves. Watching short films by other minority-ethnicity filmmakers from China at screenings this year, I have been struck by how many of them have been learning from Pema, just as Pema learned from Kiarostami. Some make direct intertextual allusions to his films. For example, in 2020, Ikram Nurmehmet (ئىكرام نۇرمەمەت, 伊克拉木·努尔买买提), one of the small but growing group of Uyghur filmmakers in China now, made the seventeen-minute short film Elephant in the Car (ماشىنىدىكى پىل, 拼车,), which cites Pema’s The Search.

In The Elephant in the Car, set during COVID, a young woman with a mask gets a carpool ride home late at night. On the way, the driver picks up two young Uyghur men. They become animated, talking to each other in Uyghur. The driver excitedly shares music with them, telling them that he lived in Xinjiang for a while. The young woman remains silent throughout. Eventually she asks the driver to drop her off early. The figure of the silent young woman with her mask seems like a direct citation of the silent young woman with her scarf in The Search. Furthermore, the silent woman creates an open text and provokes us to question and “look again,” as in Pema’s films. Has she cut her ride short because she feels threatened by the Uyghur men. Or is she racist? Or are both factors at play? And are the men just having harmless fun, or are they intimidating and sexist?

But whereas the open narrative seems to have helped Pema successfully walk the tightrope to satisfy international festival audiences, Tibetans inside and outside the PRC, and the Chinese authorities, Nurmehmet has not been so fortunate. His fate indicates how much more difficult the situation in the People’s Republic has become in recent years. Nurmehmet was arrested in Beijing on May 29, 2023, and taken to Xinjiang. He appeared on trial there, accused of separatism and organising terrorism. He denied these activities and claimed he had been tortured and forced to make a false confession.18 These events underline that being a minority ethnic public figure in China continues to be a very difficult path to walk. Nevertheless, it is wonderful to see that Pema’s spirit lives on in works like these, which are proliferating despite the challenging circumstances.

1.

This essay is a much-expanded version of a shorter tribute that is scheduled to be published later this year by the online journal Yeshe under the title “Remembering Pema Tseden as a Filmmaker.” My thanks to Françoise Robin for her assistance with that article.

2.

Tiffany May, “Pema Tseden, Pioneering Tibetan Filmmaker, Is Dead at 53,” New York Times, May 13, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/13/movies/pema-tseden-dead.html.

3.

See Pema Tseden, Neige, trans. Françoise Robin and Brigitte Duzan (Arles: Picquier, 2013); Pema Tseden, Enticement: Stories of Tibet, trans. Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani (Buffalo: State University of New York Press, 2018); and Pema Tseden, Tharlo: Short Story and Film Script by Pema Tseden, trans. Jessica Yeung (Hong Kong: MCCM Creations, 2018).

4.

Tsering Phurwa and Françoise Robin, “Pema Tseden, the Master,” trans. Lamo Dorjee, Yeshe: A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities 1, no. 1 (2012), https://yeshe.org/pema-tseden-the-master/.

5.

For a detailed analysis focused on various Chinese spoken languages, see Jin Liu, Signifying the Local: Media Productions Rendered in Local Languages in the New Millenium (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

6.

Kamila Hladiková, “Shangri-la Deconstructed: Representations of Tibet in the PRC and Pema Tseden’s Films,” Archív Orientální, 84, no. 2 (2016): 349–80.

7.

Dan Smyer Yu, “Pema Tseden’s Transnational Cinema: Screening a Buddhist Landscape of Tibet,” Contemporary Buddhism 15, no. 1 (2014): 125–44. See also Kwai-Cheng Lo, “Buddha Found and Lost in the Chinese Nation of ‘Diversity in Unity’: Pema Tseden’s Films as a Buddhist Mode of Reflexivity,” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 10, no. 2 (2016): 150–65.

8.

Anup Grewal, “Contested Tibetan Landscapes in the Films of Pema Tseden,” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 10, no. 2 (2016): 135–49.

9.

Grewal, 140. Indeed, Pema told me that he discovered Kiarostami while studying at Beijing Film Academy.

10.

Chris Berry, “Pema Tseden and the Tibetan Road Movie: Space and Identity beyond the ‘Minority Nationality Film,’” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 10, no. 2 (2016): 89–105.

11.

Grewal, “Contested Tibetan Landscapes,” 140.

12.

Vivienne Chow, “Industry, Rights Groups Seek Explanation for Arrest of Tibet’s Pema Tseden,” Variety, June 29, 2016, https://variety.com/2016/film/asia/explanation-needed-for-arrest-of-tibets-pema-tseden-1201806418/.

13.

Yang Li, “The Silent Tibetan Women and Their Visual Exclusion in Pema Tseden’s ‘Tibetan Trilogy,’” Visual Studies 38, nos. 3–4 (2023): 473–86.

14.

Françoise Robin, “Women in Pema Tseden’s Films: A So Far Uneasy Relationship,” in The Visual Culture of Tibet and the Himalayas: Studies in Tibetan Art, Archaeology, Architecture, Cinema, and Photography from Pre-History to the 21st Century, ed. Amy Heller and Leigh Miller (Bergen: International Association for Tibetan Studies, 2020), https://asianart.com/articles/robin/.

16.

Robert Barnett, “DV-Made Tibet: Domestic Videos, Elite Films, and the Work of Pema Tseden,” in DV-Made China: Digital Subjects and Social Transformations after Independent Film, ed. Zhang Zhen and Angela Zito (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015), 118–62.

17.

Patrick Frater, “Pema Tseden, Tibet New Wave Film Director, Dies at 53,” Variety May 8, 2023, https://variety.com/2023/film/news/pema-tseden-dead-tibet-new-wave-film-director-1235605952/.

18.

Jessie Lau, “Uyghur Film-Maker Claims He Was Tortured by Authorities in China,” The Guardian, November 8, 2023, www.theguardian.com/global-development/2023/nov/08/uyghur-film-maker-ikram-nurmehmet-claims-he-was-tortured-by-authorities-in-china.