Preserving Cultural Identity in Exile: Interview with the founders of Berlin's Tibet Film Festival.
By Ewan Waddell

Preserving Cultural Identity in Exile: Interview with the founders of Berlin's Tibet Film Festival.

As the sun was setting and a curious mouse was scuttling between our feet, we sat for a delightful conversation with the founders of Berlin's Tibet Film Festival, Luisa and Tara.

If mice could hear, this one would have learned of the fascinating journey that led to founding the festival; a journey of igniting a platform to uplift Tibetan art and film, in turn helping to preserve a culture often overshadowed by politics. The pair enlightened us to the unique state of Tibetan cinema, the complexity of nurturing a cultural identity in exile, and both the difficulties but also rewards of creating their platform with such limited material support.

Tickets are already on sale for 2023 (!) taking place September 29 & 30.

(We were happy to learn this year's venue is just a stone's throw away from the HUNDHUND studio at Sinema Transtopia! [opposite Wedding S-Bahn]).


I wondered how they decided to start the film festival.

Luisa: Tara and I both did an internship at the Tibet Initiative — a non-profit here in Berlin doing political work. And I then thought it would be great if we could actually do something a little less political, and something that puts the focus on the artistic expressions of Tibetans. Because I felt there was a huge focus on Tibetans being activists for their own cause; but being only activists. Because there's other stories and artistic works besides those about being exiled. And I thought it would be cool to have an event that focuses on that — even if it's for a small community.
Tara: Yeah, and additionally, I would say that there's a big focus on traditional ways of expressing art — as it is with all endangered cultures and languages; of sticking to their traditions in exile even more than they would do in the country itself. Of course, because they're afraid of losing them.


Tara: But there's also a big danger there of being very static in the artistic expression. There's a danger of losing connection to what's going on in the home country, where, even though there is oppression and it's occupied, things are still progressing and developing under the occupation. Because there are new ways of expressing life experiences and producing art which should be acknowledged also.

Tara: Also, as a young person, you are interested in less traditional ways of expression, and you're interested in how other young people are living and how they express themselves. But it's really hard, as there's just a few channels or platforms where you can see modern Tibetan expressions of art.



Luisa: We thought it would be nice to have such a gathering for the Tibetan community, but also include other groups of people. It's an open space, but it's still something that the Tibetan community can use to show something of themselves and that they can be proud of.

Luisa went on to explain how it was the work of late Tibetan film visionary Pema Tseden who influenced Tara and herself to choose film as their primary expressive medium to uplift.

Luisa: By reading material and watching a film by Pema Tseden, we both got interested in Tibetan cinema. He was really a pioneer in Tibetan cinema who just died a couple of months ago. He made the first feature film with a Tibetan-only cast and Tibetan language, and so he really was a great figure. We saw a film by him and discovered there had been a Tibet Film Festival in Zurich since 2009. So we sent them an email saying we'd like to bring Tibetan cinema to Berlin, and later we hosted the first Tibet Film Festival Berlin in 2020.



Luisa: The history of the Zurich festival is a political story. It was founded because the filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen went to Tibetan villages and asked people about their opinion of the 2008 Olympic Games in China, and he was imprisoned and basically tortured, just for that. But, the footage was then smuggled to Zurich, and the Tibetan community there founded a non-profit to produce the film from the material, and after showing it for the first time, they thought 'Let's find other Tibetan films and let's show them'. And that was how the Zurich festival was founded. Today, they have locations in Dharamsala, London, and now in Berlin with Tara and I.

I wondered what it was like to start a film festival with such a small team.

Luisa: This year is the third in Berlin, but the first one was really great. We benefitted a lot. But we were so stressed. Tibetans from all over Germany came, and then last year we also had some Tibetans from Amsterdam who came. This was really great, as they also said they'll bring their friends next year, so there's be more, hopefully.

Tara: We've had a lot of support from the community. My Dad was speaking on the panel, two guys were making traditional music before the films started to play and some people from the community were making Momos and tea — traditional Tibetan dumplings and Chai.



Luisa: We thought it must have been such a bad experience for everyone who came, because we were so stressed — but everyone said it was great and that they didn't even notice any of the struggles. They just seemed really happy. And so, after getting all these compliments on the first one, we founded a non-profit, because we thought, for funding, it's better to have an official non-profit.

We then touched on the topic of funding and support, and I was surprised to learn the difficulties they've had in securing material support.

Tara: We did the first one with no funding. And we've still had no sponsors. I guess one reason is that Tibet is a very political topic.

Luisa: Some [potential sponsors] have really said 'No this is too political for me'.

Tara: But it's not like we are called "Free" Tibet Film Festival. It's about Tibetan art.



As a parting question, I was curious to hear about the state of Tibetan cinema today.

Luisa: Tibetan cinema is made by Tibetans that live in diasporic contexts all over the world, so whatever films they are producing are shaped by their Tibetan identity, but also the diasporic context they grow up in. And so Tibetan cinema is very plural… Last year we screened our first short film competition, which gave a great lens into how plural the filmic expressions of Tibetans can be; how they're all finding their own film languages. We let them submit shorts to be able to win prize money so we could support the filmmakers, as money always plays a role in film; the conditions of producing a film can be very different and some can have struggles even getting equipment.

Tara: That's very important. To think about the context. So, when we were choosing films for the competition, we had to think about the idea and the creative level. Because you can't compare the film of a movie student in the US to that of a refugee in India.


Tharlo (2015) dir. Pema Tseden.

Tara: I think now is a very critical moment in Tibetan Cinema, somehow. Because Pema Tseden, who we mentioned before, was the leading figure of Tibetan film — especially in terms of international recognition. And he was also the initiator of a whole network of Tibetan filmmakers that had the vision to bring Tibetan film into an international discourse. He had his own language and way of filmmaking that you can easily present on a big artsy film festival. The shots are just amazing. Beautiful. And he used the landscape of Tibet as part of the whole composition. It was very connected to the nomadic ways of living. And it was asking questions. The right questions, I think. But he recently passed away, so we will see what happens now. I think he leaves a big heritage to Tibetan film, so we will see who will step in and continue what he left.

Thank you to Tara and Luisa.

This year's Tibet Film Festival Berlin will take place next month (!) on September 29 & 30, at Wedding's own Sinema Transtopia — just down the street from our studio :-)

You can buy tickets here. And you can follow TFF Berlin on Instagram to keep up to date with news.

Interview and portraits by Ewan Waddell.

Additional imagery courtesy of TFF Berlin.


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