Tranquility of Visual Memory: The Tibet Film Festival

Tibet Film Festival

The lights dim, the crowd goes quiet, and viewers begin to leave worries of this world behind, anticipating instead a new and mysterious alternative world that will soon envelop their eyes and ears…Films create worlds…! (Brent Plate)

Film festivals across the globe are more often than not venues to celebrate masterpiece works of art-house filmmakers, creating space for indie cinema, or to pay homage to auteur directors and sometimes to rejoice the diversity of visual productions. But how often do we come across film festivals which are cultural and artistic resistance intrinsically? Tibet Film Festival (TFF) held in Dharamsala is “dedicated to Tibetan filmmaking, promoting and nurturing independent film expressions,” the according to the organizers.

“Cinema is – whether the filmmaker professes it or denies it – a point of view on the way in which humans live. In that sense, it is always political,” Robert Guedeguian opined in a symposium conducted by Cineaste. Films screened at TFF this year focused the lens on the ordinary lives of Tibetans and their personal experiences..Each film serves a political purpose of piercing into the realities of daily life of ‘statelessness’. Films like Royal Café showed us how difficult it is to achieve your aspirations when exile complicates the process Beyond the visual narratives, the deep political undercurrents encompassed within each visual-image on screen speak volumes about the lived realities of Tibetan community.

According to Mazierska (2014), ‘political cinema can be either conformist or oppositional’. One of the intellectual enquiries that constantly crop up in one’s mind while watching Tibetan films is that how conformist or oppositional the visual representation is comparing to the ‘mainstream’ political narratives. The Sun Behind the Clouds, directed by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, dealt with the politics of subjectivities regarding Tibetan cause by placing the narratives in the contexts of protests during the 2008 Olympics. In a conversation scene in Royal Café, directed by Tenzin Dazel and Remy Caritey, the characters discuss themes in Tibetan cinema outside of stereotyped portrayals of Tibetan identity to connect with the broader human condition through subjects like Tibetan gangsters, violence, homosexuality.

Tibetan films, including feature films and documentaries, articulate the dissent effectively and TFF is one of the venues where the political action gains the momentum to communicate with a relatively large group of people. The discussions following the screeings tend to elevate into a political process of exchanging the ideas informing the cinema. In a venue of a film festival, where the cinephiles who wants to explore the lexicon of visual representations, this process is intense, its magnitude of which often informing the course of artistic resistance.

In this context, an important question that can be raised is what is worthy of cinematic attention? Sally Porter (2011), the English writer and director, says, “Making a cup of tea is political if you ask questions such as: Who picked the tea? How was it transported? Who made a profit? Who put the kettle on? Who washed up afterwards? In this sense, no act, object, or interaction is innocent of politics, or unworthy of cinematic attention.” Therefore, any act of preserving the memories of the contemporary times in visual text and narrative is a political act. When Pawo traces the inner wave of emotions and thoughts derived by Dorjee from his own experience that led to self-immolation and when Ponytail aka Tharlo sings the rhyme about Mao when he learned from school, both films reflects on the memories of certain times in the past visually. When a young boy chooses Opera over monastic life (Red Mask), and when a woman aspires to make films that explore the complexities of life in exile (Royal Café), when one decides to leave behind everything that was close to his heart for survival (Pawo), we see the subtle emotional layers intertwined within the politics of visual narratives of subjective experiences in exile.

Jean Luc Godard said that he wants to “make films politically” rather than “making political films.” The visual cultural productions from the exile spaces are definitely political from the making itself. The act of documenting narratives into visual forms also foregrounds the cultural resistance and the political action. The history of the Tibet Film Festival itself is a reaction to a crackdown on freedom of artistic expression. In 2008, when Dhondup Wangchen and Golog Jigme went to Tibet to shoot footage for a documentary which later came out as Leaving Fear Behind, they were arrested by the Chinese authorities and were imprisoned. Wangchen’s cousin who founded the association Filming for Tibet along with his friends came up with the idea of a film festival for Tibetan filmmakers. Tseten Allemann and Nyima Thondup are the key people behind the setting up of Tibet Film Festival in Dharamsala.

Five Short Films were screened in the Short Film Competition Category which competed for Yak Prize. Tenzin (by Tenzin Donden), Actor Tenzin(Tenzin Namdol), The Chirp (Tenzin Dalha), Horse(Tsering Wangmo) and Khachem: The Last Word(Tenzin Gyaltsen) were the short films that were screened this year. Actor Tenzin which narrated the story of a Tibetan young man who aspires to become a film actor won the top accolades. Red Maskdirected by Kalsang Rinchen (aka Bhu Kasso) premiered in TFF ’19. The film portrays the life of a young boy in a Tibetan settlement in India who wants to perform an Opera. But his mother decides to admit him to monastic education. But that doesn’t stop him from achieving his dream of performing an Opera. Bhu Kasso’s film bring into spotlight a light-hearted tale of a boy achieving his dream. But more than that, it shed light on how religion is interwoven in the lives of people and how it intervenes at different points of time.

One of the highlights of this year’s TFF was a special talk by Tenzin Phuntsog on his film Rituals and Resistance addressing various aspects of Tibetan visual narratives. He said in a conversation with Jyotsna Sara George, “Memory informs our sense of truth and I am also trying to understand who I am”. For every film maker in exile the act of visual production informs a truth and reveals to them their past and present. He also emphasised using “cultural production to look into the culture of present.” It is equally crucial that along with preserving the memories from past filmmakers and artists should constantly navigate through the memories of our times. Phuntsog is also heading Tibet Film Archive project which aims at restoring “moving images that are missing in memory.”..

Rituals of Resistance, a documentary directed by Tenzin Phuntsog and Joy Dietrich, explores different ways of resistance through the personal accounts of three people from three generations. The personal narratives unravel vulnerability, transgenerational trauma and political imperatives in subjective positions. The documentary assumes a powerful thrust when it juxtaposes the subjectivities of personal resistance narratives in a realm of larger struggle in exile. Pawo, directed by Sonam Tseten and Marvin Litwak, is based on the true story of Jamphel Yeshi, who self-immolated during a protest against the Chinese in India. After watching the movie, I looked into the eyes of the people, which I can’t describe in words. Visuals transcends the emotional currents in a narrative to a collective memory.

Pema Tseden’s film places the life of Tharlo in the juncture between tradition and modernity. The director excavates the in between spaces to extract the nuances of inherent traditional memories and portrays how it engages with the ‘modern’ state. One Way Home (directed by Qingzi Fan), Lo Sum Choe Sum (by Dechen Roder) and Turtle Soup (by Tsering Tash Gyalthang) were screened in Film Snack Session during the TFF. The Sweet Requiem directed by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin was the closing film of the event. Pema Tseden’s Tharlo was also screened during this year’s film festival.

Tibet Film Festival reminds and sustains the memory, passing on from generations to generations which is now getting visualized. Tibetan films have a long way to go in terms of many aspects, but one thing is sure, the ‘memory’ is here to stay which many wants erase. For the time being, let us speak about the visual politics of Tibetan cinema..!


Guedeguian, Robert (2011): “The Prospects for Political Cinema Today,” Cineaste, Vol. 37, No.1.

Mazierska, Ewa (2014): “Introduction: Marking Political Cinema,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, Vol. 55, No. 1: 33-44.

Porter, Sally (2011): “The Prospects for Political Cinema Today,” Cineaste, Vol. 37, No.1.

Wayne, Mike (2001): Political Film: Dialectics of Third Cinema, London: Pluto Press.

Gokul K S is a PhD Candidate at IIT-Madras researching on “Visual Narratives and Tibetan Exiles” and one of the editors of Tibetscapes. He recently attended the Tibet Film Festival held in Dharamsala.




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