Feature image credits: Sonam Tseten

Interview with filmmaker Sonam Tseten

Sonam Tseten & Gokul K S

Sonam Tseten is a Tibetan Filmmaker based in Dharamsala, India. Born in Tibet, Sonam went into exile as a young kid and grew up in India among the Tibetan community. Sonam has made several mid-length and feature-length films, including Tsampa to Pizza (2006), A Girl from China (2013) and Pawo (2016) co-directed with Marvin Litwak. His films mainly deal with the stories of separation, reunion and exilic experiences (Source: Drung).

Sonam Tseten, Tenzin Kalden and Tenzin Tsetan Choklay founded Drung, a collective of Tibetan filmmakers based in Dharamsala. The collective provides a unique mutual support system for local filmmakers to share, build and realize various film projects by sharing resources and expertise. Drung also focuses on building a community of storytellers through workshops, film screenings and other educational programs (Source: Drung).

A Conversation with Sonam Tseten

Two people who love and admire the works of Yasujirō Ozu and Hou Hsiao-Hsien met at Jimmy’s Kitchen near McLeodganj on a cold winter evening to discuss cinema. As usual, the rooftop space was calm, and people sitting there were engaged in deep conversations. Sonam Tseten, who is completing 15 years in indie cinema, was excited to talk about his journey as a filmmaker and the promising future of Tibetan cinema in exile. Sontse, as people fondly call him, is currently shooting a documentary, tentatively titled My Tibet, recording memories of elderly Tibetans living in Dharamsala. Once again, he is embarking on a journey to present and preserve the personal and collective memories of Tibetans, working in an intimate emotional space where untold stories of exile are shared. Like I wrote elsewhere, Tseten finds his stories in the most unexpected spaces and captures the overlooked moments of life. His low-budget 2006 debut film Tsampa to Pizza was a welcome departure from the recurring tropes of religion, culture and the mainstream struggle that largely dominated Tibetan exile cinema. From there untill the 2020 short Settlement, Sonam Tseten has chosen to take the road less travelled with a distinct voice in contemporary Tibetan cinema.

Sonam Tseten co-founded Drung, a collective of Tibetan filmmakers with fellow filmmakers Tenzin Kalden and Tenzin Tsetan Choklay and runs the Hot Yak restaurant near the McLeod Square, a social space to have memorable interactions over Tibetan food. This interview includes many stories, memories and experiences Sonam Tseten shared during our conversation about his films, recurring themes, the filmmaking process, collaborations, influences and challenges. Knowing the people and the community behind the visual narratives we see on-screen within the frames, and their thought processes on various aspects is an intriguing process. This interaction is part of my journey to understand Tibetan cinema in exile through the people behind the lens and their stories.

Sontse la, you started making films at a crucial and transformative time, around 2005-06, when Tibetan cinema, both in exile and Tibet, was taking an exciting and challenging turn towards independent filmmaking. You have closely witnessed Tibetan cinema’s evolution over the last two decades. How do you see the development of cinema in exile?

When I started, around the 2005-06 period, in exile, Tibetan filmmakers were very rare. Only a few of us were aspiring to tell our stories through the visual medium. Now it’s been nearly two decades, and you can see many filmmakers and visual artists emerging from the community who are doing diverse and promising works. When you look back at Tibetan cinema, from my point of view, our cinema doesn’t have a history of its own. At the moment, I believe we, as a collective, are creating history. I hope Tibetan cinema will occupy a significant position in the world cinema scene in the coming years. But it is not about getting there; it is mainly about being honest, genuine and sincere in what we do as artists and writers. Though the number of people working in the field has increased, we are still very young in cinema and have to learn a lot about different aspects of this art in its entirety. I am still learning filmmaking and understanding cinema by watching films, engaging in meaningful conversations and working on collaborative projects. This thought motivated us to start Drung to initiate storytelling, not just filmmaking, and to bridge the gap between different generations of artists by bringing them together in this collective. We still have to face other struggles daily to realize our dreams. I always tell my fellow filmmakers, writers and myself that to learn the art of cinema and its techniques, we must watch more films; to understand how to tell stories that can reflect our time, space and society.

“When you look back at Tibetan cinema, from my point of view, our cinema doesn’t have a history of its own. At the moment, I believe we, as a collective, are creating history.”

In a conversation earlier, Bhuchung Sonam la said to me that “it is the fundamental desire to express that drives an artist or a writer”. How did that desire to become a visual storyteller come to you? Can you briefly talk about your journey?

I was doing Economics undergraduate course at MCC, and very soon after joining the course, I lost interest in the subject because of math. But I started writing random pieces and notes where I expressed my feelings and thoughts through poetry. At that time, I used to write in diaries and had three or four of them. Somehow around the same time, I also developed an interest in photojournalism. I loved taking pictures and studying them. I always thought still photographs carry deep meanings about our existence. Then I joined a Mass communication course in Pune. A visiting professor from FTII who used to come to our institute and teach story and scriptwriting methods and techniques inspired me to turn in that direction. The coursework also introduced us to classic films. We got a pass to go to FTII, access their film archive, and borrow books from their library. I guess those experiences and exposure to international cinema attracted me to filmmaking. Another reason was that, except for Khyentse Rinpoche or Tenzing Sonam & Ritu Sarin, there weren’t many filmmakers from the Tibetan community in exile during my college days. There might be some people who were working on small-scale projects abroad, but very few of those films reached us. As part of the course, I wrote a script which many people, including the professor I mentioned, appreciated. This motivated me to pursue filmmaking. After two years, I decided that this is what I wanted to do in my life.

Sonam Tseten shooting ‘A Girl from China’ in 2010 (Photo Courtesy: Sonam Tseten)

Then the struggle started. As you know, filmmaking was not an easy thing to do. At that time, it was more difficult compared to now. Besides funding, we need like-minded people to collaborate on projects. It was a challenging phase. I went to Delhi in search of opportunities. I thought working in visual media would give me exposure to the field and support myself financially for the time being. After a series of unsuccessful applications, finally, I got a job at NDTV. But in my mind, my love for filmmaking was steadily developing into a dream, and it became my passion. I used to tell my colleagues and friends that I would leave the job after one year and wanted to make films. During my time at NDTV, I wrote a story that later became Tsampa to Pizza, my debut film. I didn’t have a computer to type the script. One of my friends, working for a publication company, owned a PC. So, after work, I would go to his place to type the story that I was writing in my diaries as notes. That’s how I finished writing the draft of the story of my first film. For Tsampa to Pizza, I got small funding of Rs. 80,000 from International Campaign for Tibet. My younger brother and his close friend played the two lead characters in the film. I tried to hire a cameraperson, but that didn’t work out. Then I borrowed a small PT-150 camera to shoot the film. My thinking about the film was not that deep. All I wanted was to tell a story of two Tibetans who were in a new environment like a college and how their life and thoughts evolved in the space of freedom, away from family, but still in exile. That’s how I started.

Poster of Tsampa to Pizza (Photo Credits: IMDB)

Your first film was a significant departure from the dominant visual narratives about the Tibetan community in exile focussed mainly on religion, culture and the mainstream struggle. Instead, you placed your camera in seemingly ordinary locations and everyday lives of your characters, for example, two college boys in ‘Tsampa to Pizza’ or an unexpected encounter with an artist and a tourist in ‘A Girl from China’. Can you share how you conceived these stories? Would you say that ‘Dreaming Lhasa’, ‘Tsampa to Pizza’ and ‘We’re No Monks’, all released around the same period in 2004-06, signalled a shift in Tibetan cinema in exile…

Let me share some of my observations about Tibetan families in relation to parenting during that time. Many Tibetan boys in college wasted their time bunking classes, going to movies, drinking, parties, etc. When there is a need for money, they would ask their parents, who would happily send it without further questions. I felt this was not right. I am not generalising that everyone did this, but the majority I knew was sending money whenever their children asked. Many parents used to borrow money from others to meet their children’s requirements. At the same time, their beloved children were everywhere except in the classrooms. Tsampa to Pizza came to me from these realities that surrounded me. I started writing the story of two boys, Tenzin and Dhondup and added real-life backgrounds to them based on these observations.

I will tell you another interesting thing about the film poster – which had Tibetan footwear and Michael Jordan’s shoes in it. It was designed by my younger brother, who learned photoshop. Posters are important for films as they condense and reflect the film’s entire narrative effectively through the combination of images, colours and letters. I wondered how to convey the film’s theme through the poster creatively. One morning, when I was in the toilet, the idea of the poster came to my mind. Tsampa is a Tibetan organic food, and Pizza is western food. The film’s narrative is about the identity struggle of the characters in the middle of western pop-culture influenced lifestyle and the specific social and political background of the Tibetan movement. It is a journey, right? I loved basketball so much, and we always used to play during our school and college days. It is the favourite sport of many Tibetans. Then I connected Tsampa and Jordan. That’s how the poster was conceived.

Poster of A Girl from China (Photo Courtesy: Sonam Tseten)

The idea to write A Girl from China came to me when I was at the NDTV studio working in the production department, where my job was to play the voiceovers to the videos displayed on multiple monitors. That day the Tibetan youth were protesting in front of the Chinese embassy. They were arrested by the police, as they were fiercely shouting ‘Free Tibet’ slogans. As I watched the videos of the protest through the monitors in the studio, it was a very powerful moment for me.  When other Tibetans were out there in the streets protesting, why am I here? It really moved me. It was a spark. Then, if you recollect, a major earthquake happened in Tibet in 2010. Tibetans were praying for their families in a gathering at Jantar Mantar. Around that time, a guy from China who was on his way back to Delhi from Dharamsala lost all his documents and struggled to find help. He went directly to the Tibetan Settlement Office in Majnu-ka-tilla, and they helped him. This incident also influenced me, and one character you see in the film goes through similar experiences in Delhi. The son of an ex-political prisoner character in the film is inspired by a person I know from my childhood who was imprisoned in Tibet and later came into exile. My mother used to visit and communicate with him. So, the politically active son’s character came from that part of my life. That’s how A Girl from China happened. It was a conscious decision to tell these stories. But at the same time, these stories were always there. As visual storytellers, we travel with these stories, sometimes in our minds or at times written in diaries as notes.

What were the challenges you faced during these years working in the independent filmmaking space?

Honestly, the first challenge, perhaps the most important one, is deciding or finding out what you want to do or say. You said that my films are taking a different direction following distinct and everyday stories. This experimental approach directly results from that challenge I faced in the beginning. For the last few years, I’ve been thinking about the themes that shape the foundations of my stories and films. Then after a point, I decided that if I am working on my own projects, then the three themes that I wanted to explore should be within the framework of identity, separation and reunion. Memory and everydayness come with it. Maybe later in my life, I will explore other themes. But, at the moment, these themes occupy my thinking, creative and aesthetic spaces. Because these themes define me and my life here in exile. As you pointed out in your earlier article, all my films so far are connected by these recurring motifs.

Sonam Tseten during a music video shoot in 2013 (Photo Courtesy: Sonam Tseten)

Another major challenge is scriptwriting. From my point of view, we don’t yet have professional scriptwriters here. When I write the scripts, I feel that the emotion is there, but I always find it challenging to put them in the right combination of words or phrases. This is a struggle. I admit that my writing is not efficient in that sense. Sometimes I search for writers who can express my feelings in appropriate words, and most of the time, I couldn’t find anyone with whom I can share the nuances of the story so that an effective collaboration becomes possible. While writing a story, critical discussion is an important aspect. Critical feedback and suggestions during these in-depth conversations create meaningful stories that can be translated into visual narratives.

And, of course, finance and funding fundamentally define the struggle of filmmakers working in independent space. Most of my films, including Pema and Settlement, were produced by myself. For Tsampa to Pizza, I received generous funding from ICT. Also, you know that many of the funding agencies and film festivals are not interested in producing our films, apparently because of no returns on investment. Then there are political dimensions to funding as well. I heard several times from others that if somebody is providing funds, they demand a certain kind of narrative or stories to be made. Then it obviously limits the creative freedom to explore our own stories, carrying our voices. I don’t want to make films in such a limiting space. Even if I have less money, I want to tell my own story in our own voice.

You briefly mentioned Drung, the Tibetan filmmakers’ collective you co-founded last year to promote independent cinema, art and filmmaking. I see Drung as a promising initiative that will play an instrumental role in Tibetan cinema down the line. I would love to know about the formation of Drung and a brief overview of what can we expect from the collective in the coming years?

Right from the NDTV days itself, I always had a dream to start a production house. It was something I wanted to do besides making films. I tried my luck when I was in Delhi, and it didn’t work out. Fast forward to the present, when the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns happened, Tenzin Kalden and I were discussing a potential production house to make films and promote collaborative projects in Dharamsala. Then Tenzin Tsetan (Tentsetan) came from New York. One day, as usual, we talked about this, and Tentsetan said, you guys have been talking about this for a long time; why can’t you just start it? Then I asked, ‘are you in?’. He said ‘yes’. At that moment, we decided to start it. So, we rented space inside a studio, using our own money. Three of us had our first meeting there, at a time when we didn’t have a name or a website or anything except the determination to make it possible. I think both Kalden and Tentsetan had the same idea in their mind for a long time. You know, interestingly, within an hour, we agreed to name the collective as ‘Drung[i]’. When Tentsetan suggested the name, we immediately felt some connection to it. We called Sodhon la, who is currently in New York, requesting a Tibetan calligraphic logo for Drung. Then the website was designed within a week. It was a dream come true moment for us. 

Sonam Tseten during the workshop organised by Drung (Source: Drung)

We started with ‘Live from Dharamsala’, where both established and emerging artists, musicians and singers performed their songs and uploaded them to our YouTube channel. The idea was to revive old Tibetan songs that had both aesthetic and cultural value from our perspective. The music and songs carried their own stories and emotions. It connected deeply with different generations of Tibetans. Then we organised a workshop for Tibetan school kids interested in learning filmmaking and scriptwriting. We collaborated with Empowering the Vision to promote young Tibetan filmmakers to make their debut films, two of which recently premiered on our YouTube channel. Then we collaborated with DIFF in curating the online pay-per-stream ‘Tibet films’ initiative last year. We are planning to organise more intense workshops for aspiring young Tibetan filmmakers, and hopefully, it will also become a platform for us to exchange our ideas and have insightful conversations about cinema. We are working on a web series, which is in the final stages of scriptwriting. One other project we are planning to produce is an anthology of four shorts directed by different filmmakers based on a single theme, like an omnibus. So far, these are our plans.

Behind the scenes – ‘Live from Dharamsala’ (Photo: Drung)

‘Pema’ and ‘Settlement’ are my personal favourites from your filmography. Can you share how these stories were conceived, written and the thought process behind them?

During a vacation time in my childhood days in the 90s, I was at my uncle’s house. My uncle owned forty goats, and we had to fetch water for them from the neighbour’s house. As I was collecting water, I bumped into someone on the stairs one day. It was my dad. For a few seconds, I thought it was a dream. I didn’t know he was coming to see me. He had come from Tibet to see me. Then I realised that it wasn’t a dream. This is my memory, right? Pema is inspired by my life experience of meeting my father in exile. This personal memory became the main plotline of Pema. All the stories I have written will have a large portion of me or my life in them. I think it’s natural for any storyteller. All I see around is people, their stories and their memories. I am a good listener. Whenever I meet people here at Hot Yak or anywhere, I feel surrounded by stories. These stories become a part of me during our conversations, then naturally a part of what I write. As you said, it’s personal and collective.

The final scene of Pema (Source: Sonam Tseten/YouTube)

In one line, Pema is a story of a father and daughter’s reunion or separation, depending on how you look at it. But for me, how you portray and convey the emotional core of the story was the challenging part. If you watch Pema closely, it is the story of our exile. I don’t know whether I accomplished in conveying it. Many of my friends who watched the film asked me, ‘is it an incomplete or unfinished film?’ or ‘is there a part two coming?’. Sometimes I don’t respond to those queries. But my thought here is that we are still not done yet. We are still here. We have miles to go. I can’t show a happy ending in this story if you think from the larger exile perspective. Why do we need a happy ending when the reality is different? Pema tells her boyfriend – “don’t leave me”, in the film. That’s the only thing I wanted to say through this film, only that. She really wanted to tell him what had happened, but she couldn’t. He comforts her, saying – “Don’t worry, we can talk tomorrow”. Then she started crying. Tomorrow? Tomorrow never comes. And in the final scene, the roads and thereby the journey, from the point where we are looking at, seems infinite or it’s going on. 

A scene from ‘Settlement’ (Source: Sonam Tseten/YouTube)

On the other hand, Settlement was an experiment and a personal process of understanding the intricacies of life. I went to Hunsur with my wife for a family reunion. Before going there, I met Tentseten and Kalden. I told them that I wanted to do something as part of this journey. So, they suggested this idea to follow a single person from day to night. It instantly triggered something inside me. I was thinking about settlements getting empty due to children moving abroad and older people being left behind. On the way to Hunsur, I thought about this all the time. I could visualise the image of an older man walking through the settlement in my mind. At that time, I did some work for a German documentary on Men-Tsee-Khang. During those days, I was closely trying to understand the doctors’ philosophy. It was really a memorable experience for me personally. That’s how the scene of a doctor and the older man became part of Settlement. So, I followed this older man whom I met in a nearby village tavern in Hunsur. I asked him if I could follow him from morning to late evening. I didn’t explain any ideas I had in my mind, like the migration aspect or anything. We used to go to locations during the shooting, and he would carry the tripod sitting behind me on a bike. It was an unforgettable experience shooting a film all by yourself. That is how Settlement was made.

A scene from ‘Settlement’ (Source: Sonam Tseten/YouTube)

You briefly mentioned the three recurring motifs in your visual narratives – identity, separation and reunion. How did these themes become a part of your work?

Primarily, it is easy for me to explore these themes. It comes to me naturally. As I said, it defines me, my life and my experiences. Secondly, it is something I am seeking, right? – identity as a Tibetan or identity as an individual living in exile space, then reunion with my parents, and my separation from parents when I was six years old. So, it’s me. Identity, separation and reunion are not just themes or motifs; it’s my life, my past and present.

In a larger context, these motifs reflect the Tibetan struggle also, right?

Yeah, exactly. When I say this, I believe many Tibetans can relate to it. This is what we are.

Filmmakers inside Tibet, including Pema Tseden, Sonthar Gyal and others, have made critically acclaimed films in the last two decades. How do you see cinema in Tibet, and how do their works influence you as a filmmaker?

I always had huge respect for the filmmakers working in Tibet like Pema Tseden la. His films, right from The Silent Holy Stones to Balloon, influenced me as a person and a filmmaker. They are working in a highly censored and constantly monitored space, and there exist multiple restrictions to make a film on one’s own terms. But they creatively negotiate these constraints through their powerful visual narratives. If you closely notice, Pema Tseden’s films have changed style, mood, camera work and way of narration over the years. Sonthar Gyal’s work is also equally intriguing and compelling to watch. I really appreciate and admire the team spirit or the collective behind these films. The core people including, Pema Tseden, Sonthar Gyal (DoP turned director) and Dukar Tserang (sound designer turned director), started working together and they collaborated on multiple projects. The young filmmakers, including Lhapal Gyal and Jigme Trinley, are also part of this inspiring new wave. When I am talking about Drung, we are trying to build a similar team here in exile. It is not just the Tibetan new wave – like for example, see how Jia Zhangke played an important role in independent cinema in China or Hou Hsiao-Hsien in Taiwan. In my opinion, we need similar sensibilities and collaboration here in exile.

Pema Tseden and Sonam Tseten at TIFF (Photo Courtesy: Sonam Tseten)

As a follow-up, as a filmmaker, your aesthetic style and thoughts might also be informed by the films you watch and the filmmakers you follow. Can you talk about some of the filmmakers you admire and how their works influence you?

As I told you before in our last conversation, Yasujirō Ozu is my guru. He has had an enormous influence on how I look at and approach cinema. Then there are many filmmakers who I respect for their contribution to this art, like Abbas Kiarostami in Iran and Andrei Tarkovsky in Russia. As I said earlier, I follow Jia Zhangke’s works very closely in contemporary times. Similarly, I admire Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien in Taiwan for their unique style.

While watching ‘Pema’ and ‘Settlement’, I could feel Ozu’s presence in your visual narratives, especially in the way ‘the main event’ is not shown in these films…

Yeah, exactly. Ozu’s films are simple and subtle. Especially I like how his movies are not loud, still exploring significant themes, and the way he looks at society through family dynamics. Every shot is thoughtfully framed and, in every frame, there is a sense of sheer aesthetic delight. And like you said, he tries not to show the main event in the movie. For example, the main event in the film Late Spring is the wedding, but we never see it happening on the screen. When you look at Settlement, the film doesn’t have a scene that clearly shows the main issue at stake: migration. When I was in New York as part of some other work, I thought maybe I could shoot a scene where the son calls the father or something along the same lines. Then I thought that was unnecessary like Ozu would do in such a situation. Similarly, in Pema, you don’t see the father’s face, even though his sudden appearance drives the events in the films. 

A still from ‘Pema’ (Source: Sonam Tseten/YouTube)

Can you also briefly share your thoughts on the works of fellow Tibetan filmmakers here in exile?

I really appreciate Bringing Tibet Home by Tenzin Tsetan. It’s nicely done. Kalden’s recent film Light a Candle is beautifully cut. Tenzin Dasel’s Seeds and Royal Café were brilliant, in my opinion. Especially if you look at Royal Café, that’s her. I really appreciate that film. You can see the larger Tibetan struggle and its complex layers if you look closely at it. We don’t have to say everything out loud. Even in the ordinary stories, moments and spaces, one can see the struggle if they pay close attention to the details and their connections with reality. Human stories are always political and natural. Kesang Tseten la is another filmmaker who has significantly influenced me. His documentary narration and production style inspires me whenever I am doing similar projects, including the one I am currently doing. 

“As a person listening to stories and experiences people share with us, I asked him to be invisible and visible – visible with your presence as a person and camera being invisible literally.”

The other day I was observing your process of shooting the documentary you are currently doing. I felt that the camera is invisible in the setting or never hinders the emotional and personal depth of your conversation with the people. How do you make these decisions or how have you developed this approach?

I got this idea from Werner Herzog’s masterclass on the documentary making process. Kesang Tseten la was also an inspiration for me. But at the same time, this approach evolved over the years through my experience of interacting with Tibetans. Generally, Tibetans to Tibetans, we don’t talk much about ourselves. We always keep many things deep inside our minds. I have felt it several times. Before starting this documentary, I discussed with Tenzin Leckphel, my DoP, how to proceed with a non-interfering process. We decided on the white to grey colour palette at the beginning itself. Because we are looking at memory here. I told him that we need an out of focus plain background. As a person listening to stories and experiences people sharing with us, I asked him to be invisible and visible – visible with your presence as a person and camera being invisible literally. When you listen to the narrations, you will get ideas on how to capture them in the best possible way without compromising the emotional essence. Leckphel had the agency to decide it accordingly. Because he is not only doing cinematography, he is simultaneously editing in his mind. I believe he did a great job on that front. So that thought process and instant action are crucial in making the documentary. That’s how we collaborate and make these decisions, which eventually becomes our approach and process.

Sonam Tseten and Tenzin Leckphel shooting their upcoming documentary film (Photo: Gokul KS)

Finally, can you talk about your collaboration with Tenzin Kalden, who did the Pema’s cinematography? Especially the thought process behind the frame-within-frame shots, the glass shot in the beginning and the top angle shot where Pema searches for her father’s photo…

Initially, we thought of shooting every scene in a single long take without any cuts. But for that, we need focus pullers and other technical support, which we couldn’t afford at that time. Then we took a ‘distancing’ approach. She is in her own world, and we only have limited access to her internal struggles. Kalden and I decided to reflect her inner world, from a distance, through specific frames which you mentioned now. It gave more depth to Pema, and every frame was carefully constructed with layered meanings. The top angle shot shows how she is struggling internally in a different world, or the glass shot and the reflection suggesting she could have two faces are results of this thought process. Kalden did an outstanding job, patiently waiting for the moments, lights and colours to unfold at their own pace. Also, if you notice, there are so many obstacles in the frame near Pema. She couldn’t get to where she wanted to be, and the spectators are also seeing it from a distance. We thought it was important to keep that distance.

[i] ‘Drung’ in Tibetan means ‘a tale’ or ‘a story’ or ‘storytelling’.

Gokul K S is a Ph.D Candidate at IIT Madras researching on ‘Contemporary Tibetan cinema and filmmaking’ and co-curator of Tibetscapes.

Read Gokul’s take on Sonam Tseten’s Pema and Settlement here: Sonam Tseten’s ‘Pema’ and ‘Settlement’: Vignettes of Separation and Waiting in Exile | Gokul KS