For the nomad yak herders who live in Tibet, iconic Chinese images like Tiananmen Square, a scene from the Beijing Olympics, and the cartoon faces at China’s Disneyland, are simply part of the “outside world” and seem to have little to do with their lives. “They are not familiar with those cultures at all,” said Chinese Director Wei Hu. “However it does not mean that the two are separated.”
In Wei’s short film Butter Lamp, these locals come face to face with these images, posing in family photographs in front of tourist trap locales while the glorious mountains of their home lay ignored in the background, captured in the film’s remarkable final shot.
Tibet’s culture is slowly vanishing, with “globalization and deterritorilization”, as Wei argues, gradually changing the nomadic lifestyle and the families who live in the region. With Butter Lamp, which has since been nominated for an Oscar in this year’s Best Live Action Short Film category, director Wei sought to highlight the more intriguing aspects of Tibetan culture that are so distinctly separate from the Chinese Western world.
“When I visited Tibet in 2006, I stayed for a few very pleasant days with a family, which was one of over 20 nomadic families on that prairie,” Wei said in an email interview. “The second year when I went back, there were only 10 families left; and when I was considering doing a production there and visited again, there were only three left. All the others had moved.”
Wei attributes this decline in the population to the policies of the New Socialist Countryside development program, a plan put in place by Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2006 to end rural unrest across China and modernize the countryside such that they can catch up with cities economically. The government has constructed residential housing for people to live, but all at the expense of making Tibetan locals give up their nomadic lives and move. Predictably, Wei’s feelings on this modernization effort are mixed, and it shines through in his short film.
“Many of the younger generation of Tibetans have grown used to wearing suits and ties, and fewer and fewer young people insist on dressing traditionally,” Wei said.
And yet for the stakes Butter Lamp raises, the 15-minute short is hardly so dreary. In fact, Wei’s creative filmmaking sheds a light on surprise and curiosity rather than loss of culture or identity alone.
Filmed from a single, static location, Wei sought to recreate a feeling of documentary realism. A photographer has set up enormous backdrops in front of which families can receive a group portrait. With the camera staying put from the photographer’s perspective, the photographer changes the backdrop as new groups of nomads young and old enter from the fringes of the frame, making Butter Lamp constantly unpredictable as everything from children to politicians on mopeds to baby cows enter and exit on a whim. It’s not just amusing, but mesmerizing. At one point, an elderly woman becomes transfixed with the backdrop of a palace on a cliff behind her, clearly never having seen anything like it. The moment gives a funny hint at just how foreign these imposed settings are.
“My aim was to present a relatively subjective perspective, to optimize the restoration of the actual scenes,” Wei explained. “I wish not to disturb people in the scene, nor the audiences outside of the scene watching and thinking.”
To see these Tibetans in their native garbs, full of colors and patterns that are equally unusual to the average Western audience is to appreciate the visual and cinematic creativity Wei has brought to the table. Each subject is so distinct. To see and observe them in this unnatural setting is to know them, and Butter Lamp feels rich enough in its characters that you could admire it for the length of a full feature.
It actually bears a striking resemblance to the contemplative film from 2014 Manakamana, a documentary about pilgrims traveling to a temple in Nepal via cable car. Both films are observant, fascinating, and surprising examples of slow cinema, and though Butter Lamp is not a documentary, Wei used real Tibetan locals during filming. But doing so first resulted in complications in which the nomads believed they were being used in political propaganda.
“It led to serious conflict with some radical Tibetans smashing a camera and injuring the camera operator,” Wei said. “To avoid further escalations, we chose to shut the film down. We waited for two years to resume the production.”
But since the rocky start, Wei says the Tibetans have shown a warm appreciation of the film, picking up on visual Easter eggs only they could recognize. And Wei has been thrilled to tour the film at festivals around the globe, where it has picked up recognition at Cannes, AFI Fest, Sundance and perhaps most notably for Wei, the Hong Kong International Film Festival, where it won the Golden Firebird for Best Short Film.
“It’s great to be able to bring all my Tibetan friends to all parts of the world, sharing their tears and joy with people of different culture, ethnicity and religion,” Wei said. “Many audiences hope to send greetings and wishes to these lovely Tibetans through me. All of those are so touching.”
Wei is a Chinese born filmmaker who splits his time between Beijing and Paris, and following the success of Butter Lamp he hopes to try something completely new in style for his first upcoming feature. Wei is withholding details about that project for now, but even with an Oscar nomination in his pocket, he’s still dreaming big.
“I am quite a dreamer. Do you know what the biggest pain is for dreamers? It’s when they can’t share the dreams with others,” Wei said. “Films are the closest experience to dreaming, and they allow us to have the same dream.”