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Moving Stories of the Land

A conversation with filmmaker Tian Tsering, by Cecília Vilela 

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The Land Body Ecologies Festival, held in June 2023 at Wellcome Collection, included a film marathon on the festival’s third day. This journey of films started factual and documentary, and gradually moved onto the poetic, exploring varied approaches to one same subject: peoples’ sovereignty over their own land. ​ Closing off the sequence, we crossed the Himalayas to get to Tian Tsering’s feature film Barley Fields on the Other Side of the Mountain (2017). In this, Tian’s striking photography journeys the viewer through the landscape gently, while telling the story of Pema, a 16-year-old Tibetan girl who, despite her inability to fully grasp the political disputes between Tibet and China, draws a path of her own in the struggle for freedom. ​Ahead of the Festival screening, I held a conversation with Tian Tsering, when we discussed Tian’s experience making this film and its connections with the context of Land Body Ecologies research. This began as an in-person conversation at the London Hub at Wellcome, continued as correspondence, and yielded Tian's final statement which was then read out in public on the occasion of the Festival screening – by when Tian had left London, on a solo motorbike journey, off to the Himalayas again. Our exchange is presented in this article re-edited, returning to the circular shape of correspondence.

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Cecilia Vilela: At Land Body Ecologies we are interested in explorations that are deeply grounded in the landscape where these experiences take place. You said previously that you have stayed in Tibet for some time, and how that experience of the place sat against your initial knowledge of Tibet as someone who grew up in Mainland China… ​

Tian Tsering: Yes, I first visited central Tibet when I was 13 years old, and it had a huge impact on me, seeing a culture so different from my own. I had no concept of cultural diversity within the borders of China prior to my travels to Tibet. In school we only learned that Tibet was a region in China and the Chinese education system emphasised that Tibet was a part of the “motherland.” I didn’t expect to see what I saw in Tibet. I was fascinated more than anything, by its language, landscape, traditions, religion, ecologies etc. There was so much to take in. I felt so foreign there, more than anywhere I had ever visited. ​

 

CV: How was your experience on the ground, and how has your decision to feature the region in a film come about? ​ ​

TT: Ever since my initial visit to Tibet, the wonderful people I’ve met over the years have given me a different perspective in the world we live in. This is hugely reflected in their unique Buddhist religion which the majority of Tibetans all around the world practice. Wherever you find a Tibetan community, there is also a place of religious importance. This could be man-made statues, monasteries, or it could be natural sites like mountains where they are considered holy, and you will see Tibetans doing “kora” – a circumambulation of pilgrimage. Very often you will find families doing long prostrations while doing kora. I was both fascinated by their daily rituals starting from the childhood memories in Tibet, as well as interested in starting to understand a little of the reasons behind it – how Tibetans respect and worship nature, and what their long list of superstitions are in relation to the world surrounding us. ​

Grounded in the landscape

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TT: Of course there were no film ideas and more so there was no concept of geopolitics, for me, at that age when I visited Tibet. This all changed, however, when I first visited Spiti Valley in northern India, deep in the Himalayas, in 2010. I went as a volunteer taking part in building a greenhouse for a local buddhist monastery. I had some time to explore the region. Culturally, Spiti is very similar to certain parts of western Tibet, as well as the resemblance in the landscape these two regions share, and the film idea started to develop then.

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Aesthetics as a way into experiencing the environment

CV: Tell me more about this landscape, which you later found resemblances of. What had stayed with you from that landscape in the first place? 

Tian Tsering: I was struck by the stunning landscape as soon as I got to Tibet as a child. I remember thinking to myself whilst standing in front of Namtso, the “sky lake”, that it was the most beautiful scene I had ever seen. And there is the high-altitude plateau, frozen desert and mountainous landscape. I fell in love with them… 

CV: ...it is no coincidence that photography is an outstanding element of your film. ​

 

It is no coincidence either that this resonates with Land Body Ecologies Festival, and with our work more generally, as research: when creative practices offer a route to surfacing experiences that are less objective, that are emotional… sometimes aesthetics can offer a more subjective response to a story.

 

In this sense, ‘Barley Fields on the Other Side of the Mountain’ seems to lean on a portrait of the landscape to tell the story, almost as if, at times, letting the landscape speak for itself. And only then does a story of political awakening emerge. 

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Politics of sovereignty / relationship with the environment:
two versions of the same story?

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CV: ‘Barley Fields’ addresses peoples’ sovereignty over their own land from a political perspective, of China's rule over Tibet, and movements for independence. This context, however, is interwoven with an understanding of land that is more immediate and practical: as the story goes, people are featured working the land, cultivating, harvesting, drying the grains… their daily lives shaped by such practices. ​

 

Can you tell us more about these parallels and how – if at all – they were sensed by you on the ground. How close do you see these two levels of relationship to land? ​

 

TT: ​Making a political stand in the medium of film has never been my intention. I still insist on saying that ‘Barley Fields’ is not a political film. It is a story that existed and happened to many people of the region in the past, and I wanted to tell their stories through the eyes of a teenage girl. That’s all.

TT: I was particularly interested in how these people’s family life changed, and how their relationship with the land and soil changed. In my film I wanted to add another aspect to the central character, which is the discovery of the religion, through her friendship with a local nun, which, ultimately, leads to her choices and decisions in life.

CV: In a way, there is something special precisely in this effort of yours, of directing attention to ordinary routines of rural life, the common practices of that landscape, and only ever so subtly do the political layer seem to surface, like texture to the landscape, woven into daily life…

TT: It is about daily life indeed. ‘Barley Fields on the Other Side of the Mountain’ tells the story of Tibetan people in the rural regions in a specific period in time, and how these people ended up walking across the Himalayas to reach India in some of the most treacherous and arduous circumstances.

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TT: Tibetan culture is deeply rooted in the land they cultivate. Traditionally, Tibetan families have been engaged in farming and nomadic activities. Their lives since ancient times are heavily dependent on the land they’ve lived on. The choice that many of the Tibetans who fled faced in the past was whether to give up the land and, effectively, the way of living. For me the emotion comes from this rather than chasing after a political utopia or political ideology.

Having said that, Tibetans are also some of the most religiously and spiritually minded people I’ve come to know. Through my time there, I could sense their beliefs for a better future as incredibly strong. So strong that parents would send their children on the dangerous travels across the Himalayas knowing they would probably never see them again. Most refugees I ever came to know of were just ordinary people who used to live their daily routines and rituals. They left mostly for a better future, better education for their children, and religious freedom for many, not because of political prosecutions, at least not for the majority of them.

 

Ultimately, ‘Barley Fields’ is based on many true stories, which moved me in more than one way.

The screening of ‘Barley Fields on the Other Side of the Mountain’ in the Land Body Ecologies Festival at Wellcome Collection, London, on Saturday 23 June 2023, marked the film’s UK premiere. Watch the trailer here. Tian Tsering is on instagram as @tiantsering.

Other titles in the film marathon within the Land Body Ecologies Festival: ‘Absolutely Must Go’ (2021), directed by S. Jean-Noël Pierre, addressing contemporary issues of colonialism in Chagos Archipelago which concern the UK directly and today; and ‘The Road to Kuthriyar’ (2021), directed by Bharat Mirle, a fiction film grounded in a realistic snapshot of daily struggles of local communities of the Palni Hills, a forest region across Tamil Nadu and Kerala, in India.

Images © Tian Tsering.

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