After decades of being refugees I realize that we’ve become unused to giving towards our own interests. We’ve gotten too used to foreign aid and personal sponsors. Well, no foreign aid or sponsor is going to help us make films, so we need to not just wait for the next Tibetan film, but start being more engaged with the filmmaking process in order to ensure that they can get made.
Having been offered a small role in Tenzin Dazel’s next film, I’ve become interested in following her crowdfunding site for the film, and the difficult direct solicitations she has to make to potential donors in order to raise money to produce the film.
The experience has, to say the least, not been an entirely uplifting one as I noticed that very few of the Likes and upbeat Comments on Facebook and Instagram posts for the crowdfunding site ever actually translate to a real contribution.
And even fewer of my Tibetan friends who are normally avid followers of contemporary Tibetan culture responded to my group emails regarding fundraising for Dazel’s film. So, what does this all mean for Tibetan filmmaking, and on a larger note, on the ability for Tibetans to tell their own stories, in their own language, using the most powerful communications and cultural tool ever invented?
Well as in most things, it could mean a few things. For instance, it could mean that exile Tibetan filmmaking, while not lacking filmmakers, doesn’t have much of a future because of the lack of funding. Or it could mean that Tibetan filmmakers and viewers will need to live with cheaply made films using amateur actors who work on films during lunch breaks from their jobs. Both of those scenarios are obviously too depressing to consider, and frankly, I think the Tibetan diaspora, often referred to as, ‘the most successful refugees in the world’, can do better.
Hollywood and Bollywood are only half the picture
Movies are not only highly enjoyable and a fun escape, but a powerful medium for self-validation for a society and a way for people to process the often difficult experiences that they’re living through as a group. While Hollywood and Bollywood can provide the first part, only movies made by Tibetans and for Tibetans, can deliver the second and more important and profound aspect of the film experience. Therefore Tibetans basically cannot afford to continue looking at Tibetan movies like people in other societies by simply waiting for films to come out, one after another, after another.
In the rest of the world, films are financed by companies that want to make a profit, and since the highest levels of talent and technology usually result in higher box office success, great amounts of money are made available in advance to hundreds of films each year. But even in developed countries, smaller movie ideas with no famous names attached to the property have a very difficult time raising the cash. Either way, the public is out of the picture, pun intended, and has absolutely nothing to do until the movie opens at their local cineplex.
Aya Gona Atza Gom (roughly, No pain, no gain)
However, since the exile Tibetan community doesn’t have the critical mass for films to become profitable, and sub-titled Tibetan language films haven’t to date received large audiences, our rethinking of films and filmmaking must engage and involve the public. If you buy into the notion that good films are a critical part of contemporary culture and a medium that can be both pleasurable and act as an edifying and unifying force for societies, then Tibetans need to accept some of the responsibility for ensuring that good films can be produced; much like people taking responsibility for paying taxes for schools and roads, health club dues for fitness, and joining fees to food cooperatives that help local farmers, build community, and ultimately benefit one’s own health.
So, here’s what I propose: Firstly, Tibetans should willingly accept the fact that the cost of seeing a Tibetan film must be more than Hollywood or Bollywood films because those films have tens of millions in ticket sales to rely on which Tibetan films simply don’t. Today, a couple going to the movies and enjoying some snacks and drinks in a major western city can easily plan on spending $60. However, if a Tibetan wants to see a new Tibetan film this weekend, in most likelihood, there wouldn’t be one to see, even if he or she was willing to pay $100 for a ticket. And yes, that sucks! But this stark reality can provide a new lens to view the problem and a way to start seeing a new economic and cultural calculus for Tibetan films. Of course, the amount a person would be willing to pay to see a new Tibetan film may differ; some may feel that $25 would be their limit, while others may view it more along cultural philanthropic lines and see a far higher amount, say $500. The perceived value is not as important as the acknowledgement that seeing a Tibetan movie can, should, and must cost more than other films, that is if there is to be a future for Tibetan films.
Just for fun, here are some theoretical numbers to illustrate how things might work, and please view them with some love and compassion as I’m neither an accountant nor an oracle – 5,000 Tibetans around the world who on average place the value of being able to watch a new Tibetan film at $50, and who’ll go see four movies a year would generate a potential pool of a million dollars. If you take $80,000 as being the average cost of making a film on a very tight budget, that would allow for the funding of 12 films annually. Apart from the sheer achievement of having a dozen new Tibetan films to see each year, their production would build experience and enhance expertise in all aspects of film making. Frankly, even if six of the films turned out to be duds, that still leaves us with six decent new films, perhaps even a couple of brilliant ones, where we can see ourselves, tell our stories, and that speak to our dreams, fears, and desires.
And as Tibetan film making develops to become a stronger artistic and entertainment presence, I’m sure more people could subscribe to the idea of becoming part of the film funding process. This would allow film budgets to increase until perhaps one day, Tibetan filmmakers, actors, and technicians can have a viable industry to be part of, and Tibetan films can even become regular entrants as foreign language films in major international award shows.
But before we ride off into the movie sunset with music swelling, I want to bring this back to the current reality of Tenzin Dazel’s next film and her crowdfunding experience. If a young film director with two truly creative films under her belt can have a hard time raising money, then is there any sense for any young Tibetan to even think about becoming a Tibetan film director, actor, or technician?
Before You Leave The Theater
So, if you’ve read this far and agree that Tibetans need to become better film supporters if we want to see a future for Tibetan films, then I’d like to suggest that now is as good a time as any to start, with Dazel’s film, Dharamsala. Go to https://bit.ly/3Kev8r7 and give the cost of a few Starbucks drinks, a pair of shoes, or maybe even more. She’ll be forever grateful and encouraged to make more films, you’ll get a kick out of it when the film comes out. And keep an eye out for future funding opportunities from other Tibetan filmmakers you want to support.
Now please go get the popcorn!
* The author is a visual artist and former Service Chief at VOA Tibetan Service. Born in Lhasa, he attended schools in the UK and the US and spent his early career working in New York City advertising agencies, during which period he created political cartoons for the Tibetan Review and logos for the International Campaign for Tibet, Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, Students for a Free Tibet, Machik, and The Tibet Fund.
*Dazel was born in India & schooled in TCV, Dharamsala (India). She obtained her Masters in Fashion in Paris – Institute Français de la Mode & worked as a designer for several major brands. She made her first short film SEEDS in 2009, followed by her longer short film ROYAL CAFE in 2016. DHARAMSALA will be her directorial debut feature film which she has completed writing & casting, and raising funds to produce.