"A Tibetan Woman That You Rarely See in Films" By Melong Art

High Peaks Pure Earth has translated an interview with a Tibetan documentary filmmaker that was originally published on the “Melong Art” WeChat channel on September 10, 2017.
The author for Melong (the Tibetan word for mirror) interviews Tashi Chophel, director of a  documentary called “Gangla Metok” which was screened at the Shanghai International Film Festival in June 2017. Filmed in Amdo and in Xining, the film puts a spotlight on the changing roles and aspirations of Tibetan women.


“A Tibetan Woman That You Rarely See in Films”
By Melong Art

On the vast grasslands, in the fierce storm, a young Tibetan woman in a traditional dress holding the head of a plastic doll looks into the distance…
This is not the beginning of a thriller, it is a real scene from the documentary “Gangla Metok”.

Of course, if you haven’t seen the film, you will quite certainly feel a bit puzzled. The grasslands, a herd of yaks in the distance, the traditional dress, all of this is still harmonious; yet, when the camera focuses on that plastic head in the arms of the young woman, you will probably raise your eyebrows; indeed, there have never been any images showing the grasslands in combination with something as peculiar as this.
It is the story that director Tashi Chopel tells us.
The woman in the scene is Sonam Kyi, she is learning to become a hairdresser at a vocational school in Xining. This particular scene shows how Sonam Kyi is returning home to the grasslands, carrying this plastic head for practice during her holidays.

Because of Tibetan society’s conservatism and traditional expectations towards women, the beauty industry as a career choice is hardly understood by people. Sonam Kyi’s mother, who is also shown in the film, hopes that her daughter would continue working on the grasslands or find a good husband, but she cannot accept her one day opening a hair salon.
When Sonam Kyi eventually does find herself in a hair salon in the city, her worries are still hiding everywhere. The “city” provides people like Sonam Kyi with a new opportunity and serves like a protective screen, linguistically and culturally, but also mentally and in terms of the choice of activities.
For me, the documentary’s most touching scene is when the three women Sonam Kyi, Khando Kyi and Sangdag Dolma sit in a taxi and discuss the city they are in:
“Being able to stay in this city is probably a happy thing”
“But the air is not as good as at home”
“It is good here, at least you don’t have to go and collect yak dung”
“But at home, the sky is always clear and boundless, here it is dusky and overcast”
“Yes, even though it is like that, the city is still great fun”

It is the predicament when one’s dreams become entangled with reality. The documentary’s protagonist is persistent, but also struggling, this really does not appear to be a particularly new topic. But it becomes deeply meaningful and remarkable when the director zooms in on the lives of these Tibetan women–three people who belong to an ethnic group that has seemingly always been portrayed as exotic, gentle and merciful. Just like the director Pema Tseden commented on this documentary,
“You would rarely have seen this kind of woman in images, especially documentaries.”
Melong Art invited director Tashi Chopel to hear what he had to say about this film and its meaning.


Melong Art (hereafter: M): Would you mind first introducing yourself and your experiences in film making.
Tashi Chopel (hereafter: T): I was born into a nomad family on the plateau, now I work as a film teacher at a vocational technical college in Xining. I studied maths at university, which is when a teacher recommended me to participate in a project organised by a foreign university to go to Qinghai and research and record minority languages. They used cameras to record some local customs and stories. That was the first time I came into contact with a camera.
In the past, these things were really far away for me, when I was young, only one family in our small village had a TV, after dinner the whole village would go to their place to watch TV. Back then, a TV was a mysterious object for me. Later, when that project was completed, the team gave the equipment to us as a reward. From then on, I began to record many local customs and rituals in our village and also began to slowly film some interesting people and stories. Then I also shot a few short films, gained some acknowledgements and became more and more interested in this work. After I graduated, I gave up maths and my work and decided to pursue a career in film. I went to Xining and passed the exam to enter a vocational school. I saw some of Pema Tseden’s films and stories and was very lucky to also get to know him in person. Because of his recommendation and support from his work unit, I managed to more systematically study film at the Beijing Film Academy. It was then I really became wedded to film.
M: How did you come up with the topic of Tibetan women learning to become hairdressers as shown in “Gangla Metok”?
T: We were students from different backgrounds in our school, most of them came from nearby towns. I noticed a few Tibetan girls who chose hairdressing as their subject of study and I became very interested in this. In the past, most families on the pasture would follow the nomadic lifestyle. Being Tibetan myself, I very much understand the role that women are supposed to play in the traditional culture and customs on the plateau.
Traditionally, the majority of women would either get married early on or go and herd. We had many subjects at our school, most Tibetan students would pick ordinary ones, no one would choose to study hairdressing or graphic design, until these three girls appeared. I know that hairdressing is not very popular or not really understood in the Tibetan areas, and even less on the pasture. Plus, because of the pasture environment and according to people’s aesthetics and values, they also have to overcome many challenges when pursuing a career in hairdressing.
I was convinced that it was worth digging out the stories behind the struggle and hesitation between tradition and modernity, between dreams and reality that these three girls have been facing.

M: So, from your perspective as the director, what kind of story (or stories) are these?
T: Under the attack of industrialisation and modernisation, traditional agricultural lifestyles are becoming less important, some new careers and industries have emerged. The world is changing and Tibet is also part of this. How do we survive in this changing environment? How do we confront it? How can we go further? These are some of the questions that we are asking ourselves. Traditional lifestyles are facing up to the forces of economic change, always and everywhere. Some people stand in the frontline of this change, but paving new roads takes a lot of courage. My aim is to use a simple and straightforward perspective to portray the difficult situation which these young women find themselves in as they are at the frontline of change.
M: Why did you decide to use documentary as a form of expression to portray this phenomenon?
T: There are not many films in Tibet that discuss the subject of women, particularly documentaries. I wanted to focus on the existence and situation of women in Tibet, a place that I am so familiar with, and I chose documentary as a form to be able to narrate this story more realistically and genuinely.

M: As a viewer, what left the most profound impression on me when watching your documentary is the alienation that Sonam Kyi exudes. Apart from when she is on the pasture or at home, we see her in various situations, at school, in the streets, at a KTV, at the hairdresser salon; she always seems somehow absent, disassociated, as if she is deeply worried.
T: Yes. Sonam Kyi actually finds herself in a very complicated situation, facing all kinds of pressures. When she first picked her studies, her parents didn’t agree; after she had eventually chosen, she faced various difficulties because of cultural differences between Tibetans and Chinese. After having slowly acclimatised, her elder sister got married, which once again put her under the pressure of having to drop out of school, go home and work on the pasture…
In her studies, she was always pursuing a specific aim: namely, to figure out what kind of haircut or cosmetic style would be accepted within Tibetan areas. She finds herself at the frontline of change, but also stuck between tradition and modernity, between dreams and reality. This is why she always appears somewhat absent and disassociated, she is constantly searching for a mental “way out”.
The three main protagonists of this story, including Sonam Kyi, are all nodes in the process of change on the pasture; one family are pure herdsmen, one only partially and one not at all. These three cases reflect the position and relative challenges that herdsmen face up to in the current process of societal change.
M: The opening and closing scenes both show Sonam Kyi and the plastic head and how she practices her hairdressing skills. Was this scene staged or does she usually do this on her own?
T: This scene occurs in her daily life, during holidays when she returns home she would always bring along a head and practice while herding. But this particular scene was actually staged.
Over the past hundreds of thousands of years, no one has ever brought along such an object onto the pasture while herding. But this minor occurrence actually conceals many of Sonam Kyi’s challenges and also her courage with regards to her family, to society and her future.

A short three-minute clip of “Gangla Metok” that will hopefully make more people watch and pay attention to this story in the future.

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