A CHARMING NEW DOCO
Tibetans in exile, and their supporters, chronically politicise everything they learn about what is happening inside Tibet; maybe they forget there are other lenses.
However, there are other ways of approaching reality, and in today’s China those approaches can occasionally come from Chinese film-makers taking a fresh look at situations that usually seem mired in right vs wrong, good vs bad.
That’s the case with the wry, surprising, confronting, gentle and humorous mocko-doco Butter Lamp, that got as far as an Oscar nomination.
When National Public Radio in the US discovered this whimsical play on China’s visual clichés of Tibet, and of China’s modernity, it could only see politics, leaving until the very last line a gentle warning from its French producer Jean Feret: “’It’s a tricky subject,’ Feret admits. ‘And we always have to fight for the idea that this is a non-political film and that it’s artistic.’”
This isn’t just a producer playing dumb, denying the political message so as to avoid censorship in China, where it was shot by a Beijing-based director Hu Wei, and has already collected 70 awards around the world for its playful sensibility.
All we see initially is groups of ordinary Tibetans, against various iconic backdrops, being bundled into frame by an unseen photographer, just as in today’s world of mass tourism Tibet, with its Chinese characteristics, folks get their pictures done with Tiananmen, or a busy Hong Kong shopping street, or the Potala as backdrop. Or the sort of European mansion China’s new rich love to build; or the Great Wall. Clearly these are regular Tibetan villagers, unused to composing themselves for the camera. Only at the end do we see what is beyond the backcloth, what Tibetans see every day. To say more would be a spoiler. See the trailer for yourself.
When Feret insists this is art, he is right. It is our categories, in the minds of the audience, that are being played with, our buttons that are being pressed. That’s more than just politics.
This short film has won awards in China, and that tells us that China is no longer such a cut-and-dried, right-and-wrong place, that new perceptions of Tibet and the Tibetans are emerging; as the Dalai Lama has long said would happen.
Director Hu Wei is a face of the new China. He told South China Morning Post: “ I majored in film at Beijing Normal University. While I was a student, I travelled to Tibet. When I got to Litang (in western Sichuan province), I stayed with a nomad family on the grasslands. There were about 20 families living there. That was 2004. I had a camera with me so I took lots of photos of them and promised the families I would send them the pictures. The following year I went back to those grasslands, but only 10 of the families were still there. The others had been relocated by a government programme.
“Changes are very stark in Tibet. That’s why I made Butter Lamp in Tibet, and not in Peru, for example. I don’t know if these changes are good or bad, but I wanted to use this film to get people thinking about these changes, and how they are changing us. Where are we headed? I chose to feature a picture of the controversial Panchen Lama in Butter Lamp because I don’t want us to forget him as our world changes. I’m trying to record facts, objective truths, that may one day be forgotten in the stream of history. I won an award (for Butter Lamp) last year in Shenzhen at the China International New Media Short Film Festival, which is run by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television.”
Yes, it is indeed remarkable that the only photo of the disappeared child Panchen Lama appears, in the hands of an elderly Tibetan, in this Butter Lamp film. Yes, that does make it political.
But that’s one moment in a film that, by its structure, confronts us, the viewers worldwide, with our preconceptions about what Tibet is, and can be. And the prize it won in China tells us much we need to know about how China is changing. To see this charmer as only political reduces it to either/or: the disappeared Panchen appears, so that’s a slap in the face for China, a win for the Tibetan cause. To reduce everything to simplistic dualisms is puerile, as the Buddhists have always said.
And if you think this is just a random accident, see if your nearest Chinatown bookshop still stocks a copy of the October 2014 issue of Chinese National Geography magazine.
For less than $4, you get 400 pages of the glossiest supersaturated colour pix of central Tibet, not only the marvellous landscapes, but also the same ordinary Tibetans who file into shot in Butter Lamp, in everyday dress, not just decked in traditional costume like ethnic dolls. Every romantic trope of Tibet as a magical Shangri-la, originating in the projections of the European gaze, is lavishly reproduced in this Chinese language publication for Chinese consumers. This is a glossy devoted entirely to the sumptuously colourful landscapes, architecture, ordinary people and charismatic lamas of Tibet. There are respectful photo-essays on seven “living Buddhas” scattered through the volume. In the entire magazine, the only other content is the ads, full-colour double page spreads for the latest models of Mercedes, BMW, Jeep, Cadillac etc. Audi and Landrover each has an eight-page spread. Yaks drinking at a lake shore adorn the cover.
China, especially the urban new rich, is starting to recognise Tibet in new ways. That’s what Chinese readers now want: high-end consumption and the fantasy of a pure land where you can get away from the ratrace. They want pure air and a quiet mind, a reminder of what life is for, just like we do.