Pema Tseden is a name you’re going to be much more familiar with in the coming years. With his strong sense of visual composition and a dedication to presenting the real Tibet, it’s only a matter of time before Cannes starts lapping his films up.
Already a prolific novelist in his native country, Tseden took up the camera in 2002, producing a number of features in the neo-realist vein and jump-starting the Tibetan independent scene with cinematographer Sonthar Gyal. “Old Dog” is his latest effort, a quiet affair depicting one family’s struggle to keep their elderly family pooch from being stolen at a time when its breed fetches a high price. Though the plot reads like something thinly conceived, it’s actually a cleverly devised story, rich in allegory and social critiques with very little fat on its bones.
A recent conversation with the director following a screening of “Old Dog” at the Brooklyn Film Festival yielded some interesting information, such as the reasoning behind his filmmaking style and new projects to come.
Showing The Real Tibet
One of the biggest aims for the blossoming Tibetan new-wave is to show a true portrait of the region, one not generally seen in cineplexes. “I tried to show people the traditional way of life and the social change taking place. For instance, in this film, there’s a story inside a story — that young couple couldn’t have a child. Through that kind of situation I’m trying to tell people what is current in Tibet. Things are changing,” Tseden noted. “The main point of the film is not just to tell a story, but also to demonstrate or document small details that make up Tibet.” After showing “Old Dog” in both China and Tibet, audience members responded well, praising the accurate representation of the region.
Importance Of Image And Location (SPOILERS)
As the filmmaker stresses his neo-realist approach to the material, one can’t help but notice that many of the environments come off as a kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland. This unsettling feeling is something that the filmmaker was well aware of. “I intentionally created that kind of impact, but based on the story and the needs of the story,” he explained, noting that this particular narrative called for such a bleak setting.
He goes on to explain the significance of his locale choices and the way he frames them, confessing that he was “kind of depressed” during the writing and shooting stages of the movie. “Maybe you noticed that many scenes in the movie don’t contain a lot of sky — the shots were framed very level, or horizontal. We wanted to create a very sad feeling through this. When you watch the movie, and the dog is killed, in many ways it’s kind of a liberation. The dog is liberated in a way, and the old man is too. At the end, he climbs a hill, which has some symbolic meaning, because at the end of it it is closer to the sky.”
Carefully composed single takes make up most of the movie, but the filmmaker often leaves room to play around, allowing for chance happenings and happy accidents. One of the most memorable scenes, in which an entire flock of sheep run across the back of the frame while an isolated one attempts to return to its group, actually came about this way. “90 percent of compositions are pre-meditated, pre-planned. We intentionally separated the one sheep from the group and set up a camera to see what would happen, but we didn’t know it would walk down toward the camera. That was great, and then something even more miraculous happened. When the old man walked back with the dog, the entire sheep herd followed him. That is a very interesting part, and we didn’t expect that to happen! But it happened really naturally, they merged, and it went with the feeling of the movie.” Tseden often takes advantage of the digital format by shooting scenes numerous times, but he was so pleased with this outcome that he moved on after a single attempt. “It was very natural… we had the perfect one,” he declared confidently.
“I studied at the film academy in China for many years and I watched hundreds of movies, so it’s hard to say who really influenced me. But I will say, Ingmar Bergman is probably one of them who really struck me.”
It appears that rest isn’t in the cards for this director. With three ideas in his brain all demanding attention, it appears that once he leaves the States he will begin work on one of them — the coincidentally titled “America.” Here he gives the skinny:
“It’s about a Western cow, not the traditional one found in Tibet. This time the story would take place in Central Tibet. One family purchased a very expensive cow from a foreign country because they were told that it would produce a lot of milk. They’re unsure what to name it, and since they know there are a lot of these in America, that’s what they name it. When they attempt to breed it, it inexplicably dies, leading to an investigation from the security department. Because of this chain of events, the relationships between people in this particular tight-knit village change, which is the main point I’m going for. It’s structurally different from ‘Old Dog,’ and the movie will start when the cow is already dead, with people giving their individual stories to the security department.”