On September 7, 2023, at the Venice Biennale, I had the privilege of attending the screening of Snow Leopard, the last film by late Tibetan director Pema Tseden (1969-2023). His sudden demise on May 8, 2023, at the age of 53, left the world of cinema bereft of one of his most talented children. It was a deeply touching experience to witness the unceasing standing ovation at the end of the film, with Pema’s cast and crew (among them also his own son) receiving this heartfelt and sincere homage to the father of Tibetan cinema. During the last few years, Pema Tseden had been selected and presented three films at the Venice Biennale: his masterpieces Tharlo (2015) and Jinpa (2018) had premiered in the section Horizons, and now his ultimate artistic effort, Snow Leopard, was being presented, out of competition, at the 36th edition of the festival. The large Corinto Hall was packed with spectators who had discovered this gentle, discreet and gifted Tibetan filmmaker, gradually learning to love his films’ aesthetics and the ethics imbued in them. The hall was soon filled with emotion and a sense of great nostalgia for the loss of the artist whose literary and visual narratives on the conundrum of ‘modernity’ in Tibet had already enriched the world of Tibetan arts and global cinema at large. The bold acting and the delicate beauty of Snow Leopard’s composition reminded the audience that Pema Tseden had not been a fleeting star disappearing on an ephemeral horizon. On the contrary, he had successfully outlined his own trajectory as a shooting star who managed to fulfill the wish of projecting Tibet on screen through a new, provocative, and evocative language.
From his debut film The Grassland (2004) to the emblematic The Silent Holy Stones (2005), from the soul-stirring The Search (2009) to the tragic Old Dog (2011), from the challenging Tharlo (2015) to the enigmatic Jinpa (2019), Pema Tseden’s cinema did not shy away from addressing the difficulties and the plight of Tibetans in a time of enforced transitions and dramatic change. As the Chairman of the Directors Association of China and one of the most respected members of China’s Filmmakers and Literary Societies, Pema worked alongside other brilliant minds with a passion and a courage matched only by his honesty and sense of dignity. He was a skillful filmmaker and an organic intellectual who operated in the experimental theatre of ‘modernity’, never falling pray to the vicious demands of politics or the pressures of commercializing his works. Gracefully taking up the challenge of bringing on screen also the arduous lives of Tibetan women caught in between religious demands and political imperatives, in his film Balloon (2019) Pema used his ability to delicately tackle individual despair and conveyed a nuanced portrayal of a woman’s fight to reclaim agency on her own body.
Applauding his wonderful achievements at the end of the screening of Snow Leopard (2023), possibly the most spiritual of his films, I felt a surge of uncontainable admiration for this acclaimed Tibetan director who had become an inspiration for young Tibetans dreaming of making films. Like other great Tibetan figures before him, Pema Tseden had become a master and a point of reference. Limitlessly visionary and yet pragmatic, jostling the balance between what the past teaches and the future promises, he inherited the iconoclastic but never cynical gaze of Gendün Chöphel (1903–1951) and the lyrical but never romanticized narrative style of Dhondup Gyal (1953–1985). With their roots strongly planted in the soil of Amdo and their branches and leaves reaching out for a global horizon, these iconic figures of modern Tibet lived short but intense lives dedicated to debunking the myth of a mystical Tibet. Their commitment towards finding original and path-breaking ways to write anew Tibetan history has been matched by Pema’s undaunted stance in portraying the complexity of Tibetan culture and society through his films and short stories.
Pema shared with the renegade monk Gendün Chöphel the surgical precision of the cultural historian, while following the feral howl of Dhondup Gyal’s poetry in delivering heart wrenching narratives. Like Dhondup Gyal presaged in his celebrated poem “Waterfall of Youth”, “the sound of youthful waterfall does not fade away”. In the same manner, Pema Tseden’s film legacy and cinematic masterworks will not wane from the minds of cinema lovers. His films will continue to offer a powerful, refreshing, elegant, and intense portrait of contemporary Tibet, occupying a unique space in the history of world cinema.
- Written by Mara Matta