Animals are the best way of qualifying the cinema of Pema Tseden. In his latest film, Old Dog, dedicated to an old mastiff sheepdog prized by urban mafias, there is a foundational moment in his career as a film-maker: A sheep gets separated from the flock by a fence and, in one long shot, it tries to find a gap through which it can get back. The lost sheep runs to and fro in desperation around the fence that holds it, while the other sheep move off into the distance towards the horizon, and are gradually lost from view. A long shot lasting minutes, where no one says Cut or Action, and where reality bursts through with its full enigmatic charge. The Tibetan director insists: “I make works of fiction, not documentaries”, but the wayward sheep decries this: when reality knocks, the mise-en-scène disappears, and the shot is held until required by reality. False fiction in that case.
Not only animals, but also children and other pensive figures that escape the orders of the director maintain this documentary naturalness. Non-actors who find themselves in shot enter the film through the front door and sometimes tell stories that are their own stories of love and heartbreak. Open cinema, non-hermetic, with a low intensity script. The most interesting thing is to see how life accompanies them, inseparably, never moving one millimetre from cinema, like the buzzing of the bluebottle.
And in the background, always Tibet, a remote landscape, one of snowy peaks, places of atavistic calm that clash with an unforgiving modern world and that Pema Tseden was a witness to from his childhood. The aim is always to melt that old snow. The Silent Holy Stones or The Search struggle to keep it through a young aspiring lama who discovers the powers of television, or a film crew searching for ideal characters for a Tibetan opera about sacrifice.
It took Chinese cinema 100 years to make a film in Tibetan, Pema Tseden tells us, but it highlights the sad turn of events that it has also taken these same one hundred years to abandon the exotic image of Tibet. Pema Tseden not only shoots in the Tibetan language and with an entirely Tibetan team, he also follows the narrative structures of the thangka, traditional Tibetan paintings where, in a single tapestry, they express several scenes at the same time. His cinema prefers the broadness of landscape to the features of a face, a paused scene to the eruption of vertigo, singing to action.
And, the greatest difficulty: all of this must pass a strict censorship control. Or rather two controls, firstly the script, and then the editing. This control rarely lets stories tied to History out of Beijing, especially if they are based in historic places such as Tibet. For that reason, perhaps, Pema Tseden, sparkling with intelligence, disguises his films as essays on realities even as he repeats: “I make works of fiction, not documentaries”.