Exploring Limits: A Conversation with Shidé Nyima

Shide Nyima talk short

Filmmaker and comedian Shidé Nyima with Tashi Rabgey (L) and Lugyal Bum (R)

By Tashi Rabgey

Shidé Nyima is one of the most dynamic cultural producers in contemporary Tibet.  A prominent comedian, writer, producer and filmmaker, he is a pioneer in Tibetan-language television, and is a prolific writer of song lyrics, comedy sketches, and poetry.  He has won several awards for his achievements in poetry, stage, and film.  Most recently he has won acclaim for his title role in Pema Tseden’s award-winning THARLO (2015), including Best Actor award from the Shanghai Film Critics Awards, and a nomination for Best Actor in the 9th Asia Pacific Film Awards.  He was recently based in Washington DC as a Tibetan Artist in Residence with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.  This was Shidé Nyima’s first visit to the United States.

There is a moment in Shidé Nyima’s vivid documentary of a young Tibetan shepherd that appears to get to the bottom of things:  a young woman stares off into the distance as she reassures her brother that he can carry on with his studies as she has taken on the burden of tending the family livestock; he barely manages to acknowledge her as he focuses intensely on his book.  For many at last night’s George Washington University screening of Tsezung Lhamo, the gender gap evident in this long and meticulously captured moment was a distillation of the broader message of gender inequality of the film. 

Or was that the case?

In a lively round of questions and answers with Shidé Nyima, it was clear that the filmmaker was more interested in exploring the limits of human experience than in advancing any particular social project – even one as urgently and self-evidently called for as gender equality in contemporary Tibetan society.  

We sat down with Shidé Nyima for a conversation to explore with him some of the intriguing puzzles he raised – and left unresolved – in his beautifully rendered must-see new documentary film.  Our time was just long enough to catch a glimpse of this creative genius at the forefront of articulating the current cultural predicament of contemporary Tibet. 

TR:    Tsezung Lhamo is a documentary.  But it feels more like a feature film, particularly given the stunning visuals.  How did you go about the filming?  Surely some of this was scripted in advance?

SN:  Eighty percent of the film was straight documentation.  The remainder was a reconstruction of events that had taken place in the past, as narrated to me by Tsezung Lhamo herself.  I felt this hybrid format would work best for allowing the viewer to develop empathy for the protagonist. SN TR bw.jpg

TR:  What inspired you to make the film about Tsezung Lhamo’s experience?

SN:  A friend called me up and told me this incredible story about a young woman who had made a great sacrifice and left school to return to sheep herding after the death of her mother.  One lone individual in the wilds of the high pastures.  It was an arresting image for me and I wanted to bring it to life for others.

TR:  What message did you have in mind to convey about Tsezung Lhamo by telling her story?

SN:  Actually, I did not have a specific message about Tsezung Lhamo and her aspirations or intentions.  I simply wanted to document her remarkable story and the conditions under which she lived.  On one level, it is a story about a young woman who is compelled to leave school after being orphaned.  But on another level, it is also a story about an individual who makes the difficult choice to value family continuity above other competing social values.  And it is done under these extreme conditions of isolation and physical hardship in a remote place.  I wanted to look at this valorization of tradition and family lineage under changing circumstances in a modernizing world.

TR:  Who did you imagine as the audience?  What did you intend to accomplish with them in mind through this film?

SN:  No specific audience in mind.  I made this for a universal audience.  And I set the challenge of bringing the story to life in such a way that anyone could empathize with the predicament of this remarkable individual called Tsezung Lhamo.  I wanted to show the complexity of the hard choices she faced, and the limitations that circumscribed her life direction and destiny.  It was a broader, more universal message I had in mind.

TR:  You have so many creative talents and are known for so many different roles:  writer, producer, director, actor and of course comedian.  What do you find hardest?

SN:  Filmmaking, definitely.  From the development of the story to the actual filming and directing.  That is the greatest challenge.

TR:  You just made your international debut as the lead actor of Pema Tseden’s critically acclaimed film, Tharlo.  What was your most important experience from working on that film?

SN:  Having to cut off my hair – that definitely left the greatest impact on me.  When Pema Tseden first asked me to be in his new film, he let me know that it would require cutting off my hair.  At the time it was past my shoulders.  I told him I would have to think about it, as so much of my life story was recorded in my long hair [much laughter].  Stories of past loves, to stories of past losses.  Thirteen years ago, a womaShide Nyima laughingn came all the way to meet me in Tsongon from Lhoka [near Lhasa] just because of the impression my hair made on her.  It turned out we had a real connection, so you see, my hair told the story of love.  At the same time, I’ve been discriminated against because of the assumptions made about people with long hair.  Certainly, my hair has been part of my identity as an artist.  So I told Pema Tseden I’d need some time to think about it.  I kept him waiting for
a week [grinning].

TR:  Were you glad about your decision?

SN:  I believe Tharlo is an important film.  But I will never forget cutting off my hair for the sake of art [more laughter].

TR:  People have won Oscar awards because of their willingness to have their hair cut off.

SN:  That is good news [laughter].

TR:  Which writers have influenced your work?

SN:  Oh – there are too many to name.  I’ve been influenced by many foreign writers.  The Latin Americans have been important for me – Jorge Luis Borges and especially Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  But also the classics like Dante and Homer’s Iliad.  In terms of Tibetan writing, of course the Gesar epic.

Shide Nyima laughing down.jpgTR:  That’s interesting that foreign writers have been so significant for you.  Has foreign comedy been as influential on your comedic writing and productions?

SN:  To an extent.  I’ve been watching some comedy while I’ve been here in the U.S., but this has really been my first encounter with American humor.  But I have been a longtime fan of Mr. Bean. There has always been Mr. Bean.

TR:  What can we look forward to next?

SN:  I’m currently working on putting together my next film.  If all goes well, I’ll be filming this November.

TR:  We’ll be looking forward to whatever comes next – and hopefully a longer conversation in the future.

Dr. Tashi Rabgey is Research Professor of International Affairs and director of the Tibet Governance Project at the Elliott School of International Affairs.

The film screening of TSEZUNG LHAMO was made possible by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.  Co-sponsored by Machik and the Sigur Center for Asian Studies.  Special thanks to Lugyal Bum, Tenzin Noryang and Kunchok Dondrup.  Photo credit:  Losang Rabgey.