Wednesday, December 12, 2018
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Tibetan Film Director Pema Tseden Visits Agnes Scott



Last week, Tibetan award-winning film director Pema Tseden visited Agnes Scott in honor of the Tibetan Film Festival under the coordination of Dr. Shu-chin Wu from the History Department. The film festival entailed four days of public engagements in forms of movie screening and critical symposium.


On Wed., Jan. 24, the first movie screening of this series of events opened in Frances Graves Auditorium in Campbell Hall at 7 p.m. Dr. Jessica Yeung, a professor teaching translations at Hong Kong Baptist University, generously introduced Pema Tseden to the Agnes Scott community and served as the translator for the Q&A session that followed the screening.


The film shown on Wednesday was Pema Tseden’s first full-length feature film, The Silent Holy Stones (2005). Situated against a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the 1990s, the film told the story of a teenage monk who struggles to define his religious devotion away from his growing obsession with popular visual media, namely TV shows and films. While seemingly mundane, the narrative richly unfolds with symbols that are universally understood but also uniquely Tibetan, such as a path reaching out into the sky, a TV showing programs on repeat, and masks of various mythological figures.


The next day, Thurs. Jan. 25, Pema Tseden brought his third full-length featured production Old Dog to Emory University for screening. Though there were few attendees from the Agnes Scott community, the event was relatively well-attended.


Old Dog (2011), the winner of the Best Native Feature film at Brooklyn Film Festival, is a multi-faceted tragedy of an old man gathering his mind to kill his old dog. As commercialism and interest in keeping Tibetan mastiffs as pets rose in Mainland China in the early 2000s, many Tibetan mastiffs – traditionally raised as shepards – are stolen and sold into the cities. Reflecting this bleak social phenomenon, the story portrays a faithful sheep herder who is unable to bear the threats of his old dog being stolen or sold. Again, many imageries are deliberate symbols satirizing the modernization of Tibet and China.


At the Pema Tseden symposium on Friday, many scholars arrived at the Agnes Scott campus from various institutions worldwide and shared an afternoon in scholarly discourse of Pema Tseden’s work in front of Pema Tseden himself. Among these scholars, Dr. Qi Wang, who teaches literary and cultural studies at Georgia Tech, presented and moderated the symposium along with Dr. Wu.


“Seeing my own works critiqued in a serious manner was an interesting experience,” said Pema Tseden that afternoon. “I am getting this precious opportunity of seeing my work from a different perspective and I think today’s encounter will inform my future projects.”


Pema Tseden’s son, who is currently attending a film school, was also present at the symposium.


The son was asked how he, as part of a younger Tibetan generation, perceives his father’s cinema. He said: “I did not understand my father’s work until watching them once again as an adult. Although now I do see the beauty and merit in my father’s work, I am more interested in the Hollywood films and their approaches of filming, and I do think I can apply these techniques on traditional Tibetan subjects.”


The Saturday film screening of Tharlo (2015) at Midtown Art Cinema concluded this film festival, jointly celebrated by Tibetan residents of Atlanta as well as the scholarly community revolving around the disciplines of Asian Studies and Religious Studies.


Tharlo (2015) is a tragedy filmed in black and white and set in 2005. The film begins with the eponymous character, a nomadic Tibetan with an iconic ponytail, smoothly reciting a classical Maoist text in entirety and ends with his broken retelling of the same text. This transformation was stimulated by encountering the beautiful hairdresser, Yeongtsuo, who seduces him and plots to steal the money he earned from herding sheep. This trope is seen often in Chinese cinema, and here, it serves to show the loss of traditional Tibetan culture as the country becomes more modern.


The camera stays still for the majority of the film, which resembles the traditional dramatic art of Zang Xi (藏戏) where actors and musicians enter and leave the scene under the audience’s observance. The result is a film that engages the audience in a subtle but dramatic way.


Georgia Tech Professor Qi Wang introduced Pema Tseden and translated for him during the Q&A session. Her introduction was not only a faithful account of his career up to today, but also included critical comments such as describing the Director’s films as “moving Thangka paintings.”  Thangka paintings are traditional large-scale paintings of Buddhist themes, mostly composed with a major Buddha in the center of the image and smaller sages arranged around him.


The Q&A sessions of these film screenings had active and thoughtful participation. Questions were asked pertaining film treatment, symbolic representation, narrative choice, as well as visual presentation, but more attention was paid to the Director’s career path and the overall intention of his cinema.


“I want to create a story for us. Not ‘us’ in the sense of being Tibetan, but ‘us’ in that of being human,” said Pema Tseden when asked what Tharlo is about. “I want to give contemporary Tibet a fair representation, authentic to its people and its life experience, but at the same time all of us should feel relatable.”


During the Q&A session for Tharlo, an audience member stood up and said, “This isn’t really a question, but I wanted to say that this is the most powerful movie I have ever seen. Every frame mattered. All I can say is, thank you.”


Director Pema Tseden flew out to New York City for a continuation of film screening shortly after the Saturday showing. Before he took off, he publicly extended gratitudes to Dr. Wu, Agnes Scott College, and the city of Atlanta for hosting him.

From left to right: Producer Li An, Translator Dr. Jessica Yeung, and Director Pema Tseden answer questions about the film The Silent Holy Stones at Agnes Scott. Photo by Joann Lee.

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