The Aesthetics of Exile: A Conversation with Tenzin Dazel

Tenzin Dazel is a film-maker based in Paris, France. Her works have been recognized for their compelling narratives of Tibetans in Exile. Though she has a background in Fashion Design and humbly admits to not having any formal training in films, one can see the works of an emerging artist who is perceptive and fully aware of film-making as a tool to claim agency over how our stories are told.

It wasn’t surprising to discover that her process of picking her actors were so  painstakingly intense and meticulous because her films always leave such a potent impression on me. Satyajit Ray revealed in an interview, “Films gain in conviction by the absence of stars.” As a Tibetan film-maker it is challenging to find professional actors, let alone stars. But Dazel uses that to her advantage. The actors she selects are mostly non- professionals who often play the role of themselves in her films. Perhaps because of which, there is a sense of intimacy and immediacy with which their dialogues are communicated. They are at once de-exoticized, intensely familiar and uncomfortably real. Her work contributes to this much-needed and necessary dialogue on the expectations and contradictions of Tibetan identities in Exile.

Even though we never got a chance to meet in person, many phone calls and emails back and forth led to this conversation about her films, Seeds (2009) and Royal Cafe (2017) and the challenges and revelations that came along as a low-budget Tibetan film-maker.

(The conversations were conducted in English and Tibetan. I’ve translated and summarized them where necessary to the best of my ability). 

Tenzin Dazel
Tenzin Dazel, on the sets of Royal Cafe, 2017.

When did you move to France and what made you get into film-making?
I moved to France in the late 1990s to study Fashion Design at Strasbourg with a help of a French family. For one of our design class, we had to watch Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Coming from India where most of the films I’d seen were Bollywood or Hollywood films, I was totally confused with the film. The film was in Cantonese and subtitled in French. I didn’t understand both the languages at the time- I was clueless. The teacher asked us to observe the wallpapers and Maggie Chueng’s dress prints. We had to reproduce the prints in class after a week from our memory. I was so determined to do well that I went back to watch the film about ten times to memorize the exact print of each dress. I studied them so thoroughly and perhaps subconsciously I began to appreciate the content and have a wider understanding of the film, too.

I started thinking of making my own films because Fashion Design was starting to reach a phase where I felt blocked and drained. I wasn’t satisfied with what I was doing. I felt this great urge to express myself & I couldn’t. So I left my job and found time to make my first film.

I don’t know if you’ll remember me- but I sent you a fan mail when I saw the trailer of your first film, Seeds. And you sent me a link to watch the whole film. I’ve been following your work since then.
That’s a big compliment. Thank you. I was watching a lot of low-budget films and wanted to make a Tibetan film, which was different from the ones I was watching at the time. So I bought a 8mm camera from a vintage store and headed to India to make my first film. After the film was made, I sent it to Germany to digitize it. When we got it back, my husband (who was one of the actors) was so disappointed and advised me not to show it. I was unsure about the work, too, but I was obliged to show the film and had a responsibility towards the actors and my team. I read somewhere that showing your work even if it’s the worst helps get it all out of your system and one can start fresh with the next one. So with that, Seeds was out!

I loved the film. It was so refreshing to see a contemporary Tibetan film taking such an experimental approach. There’s an honesty with which it portrays Tibetans in Exile. I also loved that you used the the vernacular language. Perhaps that’s what made the characters comfortable in acting out their roles- they’re able to speak a language they are so fluent in.
Yes, because they are not trained actors, I noticed they were very conscious when they’re confronted with the camera. As a budget filmmaker, you have to look for strong characters. Someone you might find interesting and funny in real life might not be interesting at all in front of the camera. So I spent time observing them, trying to get to know them personally and allowing themselves to speak in their own dialects and accents. Most of them were from Tibetan boarding schools so have a very informal way of speaking with a lot of slangs. They’re very witty and funny with their language. At Homes School in Mussoorie, you have to survive by creating a come-back each time at ‘dabrey tse ya’. It’s like a rap battle in a way, an unrecognized poetic form that grew out as a mode of survival. So these are the kind of everyday subjects I want to explore in my films. My characters don’t speak in formal shey-sa on a everyday basis so having them speak that way would have sounded very staged.

Stills from Seeds, 2009

Who are your favorite film-makers and how do they influence your films?
I love Polanski, Alexandro Gonzalez, Hong Sang Soo, Asghar Farhadi, Jafar Panahi, Jia Zhangke, Gus Van Sant, Tarantino, Lou Ye… and many more. I also love Iranian films. Artists in Iran who struggle with censorship in the arts are dealing with very similar issues Tibetan artists face in Tibet and to see the works that come out despite that censorship is so compelling and touching.

Then there are scenes from some films that leave a strong impression on your mind. I remember watching The Pianist. There was a particular scene in which Adrian Brody’s father gets slapped in the face by this Nazi man for walking on the wrong side of the road because he was a Jew. The level of inhumanity by the Germans was hard to watch. Later on when I stumbled upon an interview of Polanski, he explains how that really happened to his father. At that moment, I was really drawn to that aspect of film-making as a tool to document one’s own experiences.

What about Bollywood films?
I love Bollywood! As a kid I wanted to be one of those back up dancers (laughs). I have a lot of childhood associations with it. Most of our generation grew up with Bollywood as the only source of entertainment. It used to be magical. All the songs and dance! But it doesn’t inspire my film-making. I do however, love the new generation of directors in India. Like Anurag Kashyap, Dipankar Banerjee, Vikramaditya Motwani. Kashyap shares a video on youtube called: Ten Commandments of Film-making Without a Budget. It’s like a manifesto for film-making- it’s been very helpful.

Royal Cafe Cast
Cast of the film, Royal Cafe. Photo by Manuel Brulé

I’m wondering if neo-realism cinema has been an influence in the way you make your films. Especially in picking your locations which are mostly actual locations, casting of non-professional actors, and using real situations to evoke emotions in actors- a strategy Vittorio Di Sica and Satyajit Ray used. I am thinking of Dazel’s mother in Royal Cafe, whom we never see, only hear as she talks to Dazel over the phone. She has a very strong presence in the film.
I am not aware of the movement since I have never formally studied film-making. Having no budget to begin with, your process of film-making is dependent on indoor locations that are mostly my friends’ homes, my own place or places you’re familiar with. Guerilla film-making tactics are useful. We also don’t have many professional actors in our Tibetan community in Exile- so you have to find other alternatives. I love the genuine emotions and realism the non-actors bring to the film. The voice actor who played the role of Dazel’s mother lost her husband not long ago. So it was a very difficult scene for her to enact. That’s when you realize that there is such a thin line between acting and reality. I spoke to her after the film if she was still comfortable that we used her voice in the film. She agreed to it but didn’t want us to reveal her identity.

Instead of looking for another story to tell, I think it’s brilliant that the film is about your own experiences and struggles you’ve had as a budget film-maker. It is a self-reflective film about the process of film-making- but you also throw light on the reality of Tibetans who play in your film. What was the most difficult scene for you to shoot?
Yes, in that way it is biographical and also makes references to film-making. But some of characters were not biographical. For instance, my mother is more encouraging and open minded and not at all like the mother in the film. So some of the roles were fictionalized. The most difficult scene to shoot was indeed the end of the film where Dazel gets a call from her mother about her father passing away. That did happen. My circumstances were different in my own life. I had really wanted to be there and missing it has left a hole in my heart. I wasn’t comfortable doing this scene at all and had mixed feelings about it. A part of me wanted those scenes shot without me watching over, but I had to be there.

Still from Royal Cafe, 2017

I really appreciate how strong and genuine your lead female roles are. I’m curious how you met Pema Shitsetsang, the actress who played the lead role in Royal Cafe? You mentioned she was the only professional actor in the film.
I met Pema at a Tibetan Film Festival in Zurich. She really loved Seeds & approached me. At the time, it made me uncomfortable because I was being respected by someone who was a professional in the field. And here I was, an amateur film-maker and I was very embarrassed by it. But I thought of her when I wrote Royal Café because I wanted a strong female character to play my role. She was thrilled and immediately responded and approached me about dyeing her hair to look like me. It was that moment, when I felt like, yes! This is really happening! We spent a lot of time together so we could understand each other. Pema was brilliant and brought so much professionalism to the crew and this project all together. She made me feel like a real director (laughs).

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On the sets of Royal Cafe, 2017. Photo: Jordan Thomas

You shot the film with three languages!
You know, I am a stickler when it comes to languages and accents. I attempted to make it as authentic as I could. Though she was playing my role in the film, I didn’t want her to try and talk like me. Pema’s Tibetan is a more formal versus mine which is full of slangs I picked up from my upbringing in India. Being from Switzerland- she also speaks Swiss-German. I happened to have a good Swiss-German friend. So she played the role of Pema’s friend because I wanted to make this relationship they’re playing in the film as believable as possible. It was very difficult to control this aspect of the film because I don’t speak Swiss-German.

Royal Café feels like a sequel to Seeds. I remember the balcony scene from Seeds where a group of friends are talking about going abroad and starting a new life. In Royal Café, though they’re not the same actors, they are finally in the West but only to find themselves struggling with the same things: papers, jobs, etc. Royal Café and places like these become like a sanctuary of sorts, where Tibetans in exile gather to feel a sense of belonging.
Yes, I like observing people and how they interact especially in these spaces. They have their guards down and become themselves. It’s in Royal Café where I found the characters for the second film. The title comes from the name of a small Sri-Lankan café that also serves Tibetan food. In general, I think my works are extensions of my own experiences. If there is a specific dialogue I want to try out, I say the line to someone in real life and listen to their response to it. Then it becomes part of the film. Often times, I ask them to be in the film. (laughs).

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On the sets of Seeds, 2009 (Photos by Tenzing Dakpa)

I loved the reference to Reservoir Dogs in the film. That was so clever and skillfully woven into the film!
The boys really enjoyed doing that scene. I couldn’t afford to buy the suits. So I had to convince some of them. I told them that in Paris, they need to own at least one suit for special events. So two of the actors bought their suits from Zara, I think? (laughs). They hadn’t heard of Reservoir Dogs until I showed it to them. One of them asked me to lengthen the scene, he thought it was so good and deserved a longer take (laughs). I think we are so used to seeing ourselves portrayed as monks and nomads that it’s hard to envision ourselves in different roles. When you try and make films that reflect the lives of real Tibetans, everyone can relate to the film. You don’t have to go too far to look for inspiration.

On the sets of Royal Cafe (2017). Photo: Jordan Thomas

Is there a reason why you shoot your films in both in B&W and color?
With Seeds, it was shot with an 8mm camera because I was really drawn to that quality. I was very curious to explore it further. Being in Paris & studying fashion you get exposed to all these videos and images for fashion reference. I especially loved the sixties: Serge Gainsbourg and Françoise Hardy’s music videos. I didn’t understand Andy Warhol films, but I found it so cool.

In Seeds, she dreams in color as I wanted the color of the Tibetan flag and the color of blood dripping from her band to be obvious. In Royal Café, all the actual scenes are shot in color. But the way Dazel (our main character) pictures/imagines the scenes are all in black and white. It is also making a reference to Seeds, (my first film) which was mostly filmed in black and white. This is personal though, and I want viewers to see it however they want.

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Stills from Seeds, 2009

In Royal Cafe, the scene at the apartment where the actor who recently lost his mother is singing and dancing in grief to a thug-shey– that’s a very poignant scene. And the way the camera angle is placed makes it feel like we’re seated in the same room, watching him dance. That was heartbreaking! Do you plan/ draw out your scenes, rehearse before the filming?
I try to draw out my scenes. I am not a technical person myself but I do study a lot of films I love. We were able to rehearse some scenes more than the others. The shot you mention was inspired from a scene in Jim Jarmusch’s film but of course in a Tibetan way. When I was little I remember my father dancing while he was drunk. He wasn’t a good dancer but he wanted us to dance with him. It used be those awkward moments where you’re scared but then you find yourself dancing with him because you don’t want to disappoint him. So some scenes are inspired from films with a mix of awkward memories and personal grief. But I have to add that if the film looks good cinematography wise, all the credit goes to Rémi Caritey, who co-directed this film with me and our Lighting Technician Manuel Brulé- an amazing photographer, too. Additionally, Cyrille Dufay helped us with the soundtrack and Gaël Simard worked on all the subtitling. I think we did a great job as a team and it wouldn’t have been possible without their immense contributions.

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Photo by Manuel Brule
The film crew at work: behind the scenes of shooting Royal Cafe. Photo by Jordan Thomas.

What are the challenges of being a Tibetan filmmaker?
Firstly, it’s very hard to raise funds for film-making, but it’s even harder to sustain your living costs with film-making alone. Secondly, film making is a collective and collaborative work. Being in the exile community the disadvantage is that we are scattered around the globe. If you want to collaborate with Tibetan artists who live in different countries, it’s hard to bring the whole team together without a budget.

Tenzin Dazel, on the sets of Royal Cafe, 2017

Any advice you’d like to share for aspiring film-makers?
Be honest and true to yourself. In the Tibetan community, we create our own unwritten rules and expect filmmakers to make films that mostly address language and cultural preservation. While I understand the urgency for that, I also believe that in order for art to thrive we must take advantage of the freedom we enjoy and question the self-censorship we also impose upon ourselves.

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