QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
To live in political exile is to live in guilt; whether it’s not being among your own people or feeling that you haven’t done enough. For Tibetans abroad, including the Dalai Lama himself, the long-suffering nightmare has only just begun. Unable to return to their homeland, even the small outposts of comfort and resistance in their adopted country might be under surveillance by PRC spies.
Tenzin (Tenzin Kelsang) is one of many Tibetans living in a third country, understandably confused about his identity. Working as a trucker in Toronto alongside his cousin, he sleepwalks both through life, unable to come to terms with his relationship with his former homeland. In a neat reference to Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) a strike of a lighter cuts to grainy footage of self-immolation. His brother has killed himself in protest of China’s repressive policies, celebrated as a martyr by fellow members of his community. Tenzin is only going to look inadequate by comparison.
His brother didn’t have the comforts of Western life either: directors Michael LeBlanc and Joshua Reichmann show off the contrast between the urban nightlife of Toronto — generic flashing lights and club darkness; spiced up with some toilet drug-taking— and the vibrancy and colour of Buddhist celebration in a Tibetan centre. The biggest issue is that both elements of Tenzin’s life are presented in basically the same, dreamlike fashion. While it shows how little engagement he has in the world, the lack of contrast gives the audience little to focus on either.
The music, combining traditional droning Tibetan music with a post-industrial electronic sound, drapes the film in a somnambulant tone, reflecting the inability of Tenzin to feel his way through his pain. This is all filtered through Buddhist ideals of meditation and not-wanting, believing that desire is the key to all suffering. As the theory goes: eliminate the self and its wants and you are more likely to lead a happier life.
This is hard when you are working a deadbeat job, Chinese oppression awkwardly mirrored by oppressive boss Ivan (Ivan Mendez Romero) short-shifting a companion on his wages. Tenzin (portrayed with great sensitivity but little urgency by Kelsang) wants to be like his brother in this situation all the while lacking the same conviction. It’s all tenderly captured in hazy close-ups and teary expressions and philosophical voiceovers, but ultimately comes across as rather underwhelming.
While I assume this is kind of the point of the movie — the difficulty of trying to live your own life under the shadow of a martyr — the righteous fury of Tenzin’s brother against the tragedy of Tibet is barely replicated in the narrative itself. For such pointed and politically-intended cinema — literally ending with a Free Tibet postscript that fills up the entire screen — it feels like a lost opportunity to seriously criticise the PRC. For fans of the regime, it’s unlikely that they will change their mind on Tibet either way after watching this film.
Tenzin plays in the First Feature section of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, running from 12-28th November.