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Internationally acclaimed Tibetan filmmaker no more

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(Pema Tseden, 1969 – May 8, 2023)

(TibetanReview.net, May08’23) – Renowned Tibetan film director Pema Tseden has died suddenly today in Tibet (Autonomous Region), aged 53. Known for his award-winning Tibetan-language films that offer a glimpse into the lives of Tibetans, he died due to heart failure, reported caixinglobal.com May 8, citing the Qinghai Tibetan Research Committee.

As a Tibetan, Pema Tseden dedicated his career to blending his culture with modern cinema. He documented Tibetan history, customs and cultural traditions through his camera, the committee has said in a statement.

Pema Tseden (or Wanmaciadan) was a rare instance of a Tibetan who chose to work within the official Chinese film system of script approvals, censorship and release permits but still managed to avoid Party propaganda while achieving national and international acclaim.

Although he died young, Pema Tseden was possibly not in the pink of health. In Jun 2016, he was hospitalized for hypertension and hyperglycemia after being detained for a dispute over luggage at the airport in Qinghai’s capital, Xining, according to China’s official globaltimes.cn Jun 29, 2016.

It was widely reported outside the official media at that time that he was detained not over any luggage dispute but due to his questioning of the Chinese police for subjecting him to ethnic discrimination and ill-treatment at the airport.

He was reported to have been taken into custody and detained for five days for disturbing public order. His detention made a splash online and even attracted expressions of grave concern from the Chinese film industry.

* * *

Born in a nomad family in 1969, in Guide (Tibetan: Trika) County of Hainan (Tsolho) Prefecture, Qinghai Province, Pema Tseden was a former civil servant and teacher.

He was the first Tibetan student to graduate from the acclaimed Beijing Film Academy and made his directing debut in 2005 with The Silent Holy Stones. The film won best director at Shanghai International Film Festival’s Asian New Talent Award and best directorial debut at China’s Golden Rooster Awards.

Other internationally acclaimed films followed, including The Search (2009), which won the Special Jury Prize at the Shanghai festival. He next directed Old Dog (2011), which again proved to be a milestone film for him as it won the Grand Prize at Tokyo Filmex. Soon Pema Tseden became a regular fixture at these film festivals, gaining recognition for his art, noted the newsbytesapp.com May 8.

In 2014, he won the best cinematography award at Shanghai International Film Festival for The Sacred Arrow. His last three feature films—Tharlo (2015), Jinpa (2018), and Balloon (2019)—were premiered at the prestigious Venice Film Festival.

At the time of his death, Pema Tseden was working on two films: Snow Leopard, which is in the post-production stage, and another untitled film that was in the process of production.

He completed filming on Snow Leopard in July 2020, a drama film that revolves around a conflict between a father and son after a snow leopard kills nine of a herder’s goats. The son wants to kill the leopard, but the father insists on letting the animal go unharmed.

The director had also received government approval to shoot another film known variously as Stranger and Have a Nice Trip about a man riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle round Tibet looking for a woman.

Pema Tseden was recognized as one of PRC’s most significant filmmakers—having worked extensively in the Tibetan language. He is sometimes referred to as a pioneer of the Tibetan New Wave, noted the variety.com May 8.

* * *

As soon as the news of his death broke out, fans of Pema Tseden took to social media to pay their condolences. A user tweeted, “Despite its leisurely pace, Tseden’s films stood out amongst a sea of other Tibetan-made movies, many of which were as dull and formulaic as state propaganda.”

Another user wrote, “Although all of us will sorely miss him, his films will remain comforting companions,” the newsbytesapp.com report noted.

“Such terrible, terrible, terribly sad news of your passing, Pema Tseden, one of the most distinctive voices of contemporary cinema. I wish this wasn’t true,” Kiki Fung, programmer at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, has written on Facebook.

“Pema Tseden, a famous Tibetan director, screenwriter and professor at the Film School of the China Academy of Art, died in Tibet in the early hours of May 8 due to an acute illness. Due to the sudden incident, the school will work with Mr Tseden’s family to deal with the follow up matters. The relevant information will be announced in due course,” variety.com report quoted the Academy as saying in a statement.


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